India Stoker has something dark and creepy inside her. Much like Stoker, the film that bears her name and which is also Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s English language debut. Like much of his previous work, Stoker is filled with a menagerie of mysteriously twisted and broken characters, with India (Mia Wasikowska) being the macabre tour guide to this gothic psychological thriller.
She wears her father’s belt and idiosyncratic boys’ shoes, claims she can hear/see things that others can’t and is a deft hand at killing things with a hunting rifle. Your average 18 year old girl, she is not. Much to the dismay of her permanently on the verge of hysteria mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who doesn’t share a fraction of the affection that India and her father, Richard (Dermot Mulrooney), does. Luckily for Momma Stoker’s jealousy, Poppa Stoker has kicked the bucket in a mysterious car accident on India’s 18th birthday, and now here comes uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), Richard’s brother, back from his international travels, to live with the Stoker ladies in their time of grief. But slick and charming Charlie might be more than what he’s letting on.
Now normally this would be the spot where India goes all Nancy Drew and tries to get to the bottom of who Charlie really is while he keeps screaming about “meddling kids”, but Wentworth Miller’s script (yes, the same Wentworth Miller who turned his body into blueprints back in the day in “Prison Break”) is anything but normal.
For starters, there are very few clearly white hats being worn here, with just about every person doffing their favourite shade of black. And out of all them, it’s India’s that’s the most stygian. Wasikowska plays her like a cross between Wednesday Addams and Dexter Morgan, all morgue-cold demeanour and shadowed eyes, but I can’t help but feel that she’s just a little too aloof in places, resulting in a performance that’s good, but just not quite memorable enough. That’s definitely not a problem for her two main co-stars though. Kidman is all scything tongue and fiery mane, while Matthew Goode switches from deathly creepy to oil slick charming to emotional trainwreck with unsettling ease. This is first time I’ve seen him in anything since his turn as Ozymandias in Watchmen and both roles proves that he certainly knows his way around smarmy psycho characters.
For all the intriguing, almost Shakespearean broken characters in Stoker though, there’s actually not that much going on with the story. The film’s central “mystery” and all the other strange goings-on should be solved by most filmgoers long before their onscreen reveal comes around, leaving this as less of a whodunnit and more of a whythehellaretheydoingit.
But whereas the narrative keeps it all pretty simple (although very, very dark), Chan-Wook’s direction is certainly anything but pedestrian, and this is where Stoker truly shines. Right from the film’s start, with its jittering, stop-start credits sequence, everything is designed to just be slightly off-kilter and uneasy. He plays around with conventional scene framing during dialogue scenes, he cuts away from scenes prior to their climax so as to return to them later at unexpected times, he tweaks the traditional formula of flow. He uses all these techniques along with vivid, sumptuously emotive visuals to create metaphorical landscapes, where there’s quite often multiple meanings to events on screen.
And it’s because of this that a rather strange thing happened to me after watching this film. See, as I walked out of the cinema, I was fully intending to give this film a slightly lower rating, but as I began writing about it and thinking back to what I had seen/heard, I realized just how much Chan-Wook’s heavily layered direction makes up for any narrative shortcomings the film might have. In the hands of a lesser director, this could certainly still have been a twisted fairytale, but definitely not one that looks this good. It’s a film that haunts you with it’s gothic imagery, stoking (pun fully intended) an emotional response out of you, more for what it implies than what is actually happening on screen.
For longtime fans of Chan-Wook’s none of this should come as surprise, but for newcomers this serves as quite the powerful introduction to the South Korean auteur, and one I’d recommend to anybody looking for something a little different.