DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park
PLOT: A girl’s father dies on her 18th birthday; the uncle she never knew she had shows up soon thereafter and installs himself in the isolated house she lives in with her lonely mother.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, although Chan-wook Park fans should find enough perversion, violence and sublime cinematography to keep themselves engaged in it.
COMMENTS: From the long-lost uncle right out of Shadow of a Doubt to a subversive quotation to Psycho‘s shower scene, Stoker is Chan-wook Park’s Hitchcock tribute movie. But where Hitch was a master of plotting as well as suspense, Park substitutes high stylization and on-the-nose perversity for carefully shaded storytelling. The events of Stoker are highly implausible, and the characters act like dancers in a psychosexual ballet rather than three people mourning the loss of a beloved breadwinner. The triangular character structure draws you in, presenting sets of relations—mother/daughter, uncle/niece, and widow/brother-in-law—which shift throughout the tale. Allies will become enemies, buried family secrets will be uncovered, and Uncle Charlie, naturally, is not what he seems. Oh, and blood will flow when longings grow unchecked. Stoker unavoidably flirts with the Electra complex, as mother and daughter compete for the attentions of the surrogate father figure, the new Man of the house. Mysterious Uncle Charlie, whose very existence was unknown until he showed up at his brother’s funeral, is a figure of fear and desire to young India. The way he tries to win the 18-year old’s allegiance by waiting for her in his convertible parked next to the school bus would creep out Chris Hansen, and the way newly widowed and prematurely lonely mom Evelyn courts Uncle’s attention would boil Hamlet’s blood. There are a lot of naughty, nasty possibilities in a tale that teases a potential transformation into a taboo love triangle, but it has less transgressive sting because nothing onscreen bears much relationship to reality. Characters show up as if by magic when the script calls for it, ominous music plays for no obvious reason, and no one’s reactions are very believable. (You’ve got to call the police when you find that first body, folks!) The way India’s feelings for Charlie flow from disdain to prurient interest and back again, in particular, makes little outward sense; the vacillation only reflects her conflicted attitudes about sex and upcoming adulthood. Unannounced dream sequences further distance us from reality. A near-rape plays twice; the second time through, it’s unclear whether it’s meant to be a continuation of the previous scene, or a new version re-imagined as a sexual revenge fantasy. All of this is presented neither with a repressed Freudian subtlety (the way a Hitchcock would have handled it) or with a balls-to-the-wall operatic insanity (the way we might have expected a Chan-wook Park to treat such material). Stoker instead exists in the netherworld between the real and the surreal, the realm of melodrama. It’s like a too-logical dream that’s uncomfortable precisely because it’s not bizarre enough to meet our expectations. And although the script proffers the twists we’d expect in a thriller—secrets are revealed fast and furious in the third act—in the end, much of the plotting just seems lazy, particularly in a senseless, character-arc-erasing final scene that caps things off with a meaningless shock. On the plus side, the slow-paced Gothic tenor of the drama is refreshingly different from typical Hollywood “realism,” and Park grants us a couple of wonderful moments—a breathy erotic piano duet (of a Philip Glass composition made expressly for this movie) and a striking shot where Nicole Kidman’s hair transforms into a field of grain. In the end, Stoker is lurid, loopy, and occasionally lovely, no masterpiece but a passable guilty pleasure.
Korean director Park had to work with a translator on the set, and so the actors may have been largely left to direct themselves. This may be why some of the performances seem subdued, while Park’s camera is as vibrant as ever.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Park’s skills for surreal subjectivity and the mischievously weird certainly don’t hurt, but they can’t quite banish Stoker’s narrative speed bumps and draughts of cold air as the film bluntly denotes the compulsive correspondence of orgasm and murder…”–Peter Canavese, Groucho Reviews (contemporaneous)