In the first English-language film from Thirst and Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, a young woman’s chilling relationship with her uncle leads her into adulthood — and a world of supernatural violence.
[Note: Major plot spoilers for Stoker. Proceed with caution!]
Prior to the release of Park Chan-wook's Stoker, everyone on the interview circuit bent over backwards to assure audiences this wasn't a vampire movie, not supernatural in the least. Given that Park had tackled vampires with gusto in Thirst (and that the title of the movie was Stoker), the question seemed fair. Mystery solved: since every character in Stoker parades their designer duds mid-afternoon with no side effects and the movie is suitably bloodless, I suppose we can grant the point on Not Vampires.
But Stoker is absolutely a film about monsters and the supernatural, and how they're the most natural things in the world.
This lushly-filmed family Gothic is at its heart a film about its taciturn heroine, India, and every beautifully-framed shot is made in grim sympathy for what it sees as her inevitable and surreal journey into adulthood, one pair of saddle shoes at a time. For though no fangs ever manifest or wolfish claws appear, India's coming of age demands she become monstrous, to survive in a world this movie knows is monstrous.
It might be possible to approach the film as a mundane-secular thriller. Stoker pays deliberate homage to the setup and structure of Hitchcock's bad-family-apple dreadfest Shadow of a Doubt, and Stoker's plot, if sketched only by the major reveals (You mean her mysterious arriviste uncle has killed before? You mean he will again?) straddles a line between potboiler-noir and an artsy sweeps episode. It's a fun line – there's a certain amount of camp integral to horror – but there's nothing inherently supernatural here.
Except, then the film actually starts. The supernatural is so integral to the film that India gives us an introductory voiceover explicitly introducing her superhuman senses. Some of them play out in the plot – including one darkly-hilarious chiller involving sharp hearing and a mobile phone – but others merely shade India's character. She hears things others can't (vicious mourners at her father's funeral), sees things others can't (in still life class, she draws the unseen pattern inside the vase), underscoring Mia Wasikowska's sharp performance as a young woman who is, at the point at which we meet her, utterly isolated and unknown even to herself.
Enter Uncle Charlie. (Everyone who's seen Oldboy, you can start nodding sagely about the approaching incest.)
He reappears at the wake for India's father, who's died in a freak car accident (you don't say!), leaving India in the care of her hothouse-flower mother Evie, a highly-educated lady of leisure about to fade away to nothing (played by the pitch-perfect Nicole Kidman, milking every awkward pause). In the blue-green house, Charlie is a pillar of gold from his preppy sweaters to his tan, a walking ad for 1920s plasticine perfection. And though India's creeped out by this too-smooth uncle who's moved in upstairs, she soon begins to realize blood is thicker than water (or the supernaturally-effective consumption of his offerings of rare meat and red wine that provides the initial conduit of feeling between them). And there's enough nuance behind Matthew Goode's reptilian gaze that it merits India's fascination, an undercurrent they're both more than aware of even as Charlie lays Charm Level Eleven on the way-into-it Evie.
Park Chan-wook's direction elevates this standard setup with gallery-worthy composition, with casually non-linear pacing that that make each frame a tiny drama of its own and keeps the slow burn from turning sluggish. The tension in the house is expertly built; every lightbulb is a pendulum of dread, every sun-drenched room a trap, every wide-shot dinner scene a minefield. In nature, though, a key sense of balance is restored: graves are peaceful, hunter's blinds are sanctuaries. One particularly evocative sequence of India in a playground at night follows her as she spins on a carousel, talking dreamily, floating in and out of frame with seemingly-supernatural ease.
But Wasikowska's more than a match for her surroundings, as we watch her doubts evaporating one by one, and follow her shift from the girl she is at the start of the story to the adult she declares herself to be when we first meet her. When she finds herself a target of a cadre of boys at school (with dialogue so unnatural even for this stylized film that it's entirely possible someone's dad subbed in and wrote it), she surprises them – and herself – with the cold violence of her response. Things escalate when one of the boys turns a makeout session into an assault, and as she fights back, Charlie appears like an avenging angel to help her finish the job.
Their nearly-wordless sympatico clarifies this unexpected and deep connection for India, and how she's changed. That it's sexual, there's no doubt (this is probably not a date movie), but she also begins to realize the significance of the faltering estrangement between herself and her mother and her childhood hunting trips with her father – an attempt to channel a darkness he must have seen before, and training in an autonomy she hadn't noticed at the time. And with this knowledge of her monstrousness, and some third-act revelations about Uncle Charlie, India must decide what to do with the first decision that's ever been wholly hers. Gotta love a movie in which the girl becoming monstrous is considered a triumph, not a tragedy.
The answer might not be pretty or particularly unexpected, but Stoker sides firmly with India in its embrace of the odd and the off-kilter, the too-pretty and the wilting; it's a world that welcomes a very natural supernatural, and a monster of her own making.