We hear about the losses that have affected India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) from other people. Her father has died suddenly, on her 18th birthday no less, and the young girl betrays few emotions, though she’s clearly disturbed in a way that’s hard to put one’s finger on. Around her, people gossip, at visitations, parties, meals. “Who’s going to look after her now?” asks someone. “She was so close to her father,” says another.
This is the world of Stoker (2013), a Gothic creeper with a Hitchcockian bent. Everything is there on the screen but slightly hidden, under the surface, a step removed from normal. It’s overwrought in the best kind of way, explained only by the way it looks, the way it pulsates forward, the way it sounds. It’s a moody, dream-like movie, and I liked it a great deal.
India and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), have a cold relationship, explained at first by the loss of Richard (Dermot Mulroney), the father and husband. This iciness is deepened by the sudden emergence of Richard’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) into their lives. India seems to see something in Charlie that she doesn’t like, a dangerous element that eludes Evelyn. She’s also drawn to him, in a way she can’t explain, an attraction that grows in concert with a budding sexual desire, at first unfocused. Charlie’s smarmy nature quickly ensnares Evelyn, who falls for him, but it seems always to be hiding something, and so it is as the Stoker family housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) and a concerned aunt (Jacki Weaver) mysteriously disappear. India quickly unravels the mystery but a different one emerges when she doesn’t appear to care. This isn’t a traditional thriller; it suggests at things a little deeper and more disturbing.
Stoker is directed by Chan-wook Park, a South Korean of some renown who is making his first movie in English. The movie is atmospheric and completely cinematic, telling much of the real story in visual terms alone. It’s less about what you don’t see coming and more about how you see what you do. Stoker drips with arresting images, some load-bearing, others just lovely or haunting. It’s a feast for the eyes as much as a cancer for the psyche.
The movie’s main influence is Shadow of a Doubt (1948), in which Joseph Cotten (also called Uncle Charlie) comes into a picturesque family and both disturbs and allures the young daughter. But there are visual flourishes that recall some of the highlights of the Hitchcock canon: a swinging light in a basement mimics Psycho(1960); a meal has shades of a famous scene in Frenzy (1972); the colors of buildings and rooms bring Vertigo (1958) to mind. The importance of scene construction, the movement of the camera, the emphasis on physical items, especially a belt—these Hitchcockian images, which are valued over dialogue and are just as central to the storytelling, are paired with a David Lynch-like disturbia, as the grotesque and unsettling aspects crawling just beneath the surface are much more pronounced and exaggerated than Hitchcock would have done. This creates a Gothic, Puritan ghost story by a great visualist and leaves the most unlikely images clinking like ice up your spine.
It is also indebted to The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton’s Bible-centric horror in which Robert Mitchum smoothly but disturbingly takes the place of an absent father by taking advantage of a seduced mother to the terror of her children (inNight of the Hunter, the children are younger and there is no sexual element, but the predatory nature of Stoker’s Uncle Charlie is the same). Both movies are about the nature of evil, the way it exists in some men just to exist, but that it also exists in us all. The way that India comes to mirror Charlie’s behavior is more disturbing almost than Charlie’s behavior on its own, especially when that behavior is erotically charged. During the turning point of the movie, India sees Charlie embrace and kiss Evelyn. Her eyes focus on Charlie’s hands as they crawl along Evelyn’s chest. She runs off, disgusted by what she’s seen. She then finds a boy in her class and takes him into the woods to make out with him, guiding his hands to the exact same spot. From here on, India, who had been our conduit into this crazy world, switches allegiances; she’s Charlie’s now, his to teach.
I don’t want to give the impression that Stoker isn’t an original piece of work, that it’s a rehashed, wormed-over Frankenstein of other movies. Just as Van Gogh was hardly the first person to use blue, so has Park taken different cinematic colors to produce a work all his own. The energy of the filmmaking, the flourishes of camera movement, the choices of composition and scene structure, are his own, informed by an aesthetic grown out of a life-long devotion to movies.
Stoker is a sumptuous achievement, controlled but wild, a movie that exists in two places: on the screen and in the imagination. Best of all, it simmers, never speeding up the level of quick-cut chaos but never, ever, slowing to a halt. It’s like the monster in the nightmares; it never stops coming.