Most parents are nervous about adolescence – I know I get jittery the closer it approaches for my own kids – yet even the gloomiest among us would never envision the sort of adolescent terror on display in Stoker.
The English-language debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and a grisly nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Stoker centers on 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) in the tormented weeks following her adored father’s sudden death. The funeral brings the arrival of her father’s brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), a devilishly charming figure whom neither India nor her mother (Nicole Kidman) have ever met.
There’s always been something serpentine about Goode – even when playing a cuckold in Match Point – and that quality is emphasized here (especially when Charlie snakes his belt from his pants for nefarious purposes). Under Park’s direction, Stoker is heightened at every moment – in the ostentatious opening, freeze frames and flowing skirts play a game of cat and mouse with the credits – and the performances operate at the same level of showiness. Goode would be a hoot, except that every time you’re about to laugh, you feel a burst of violence lurking behind that cold, reptilian stare.
Stoker captures the way adolescence blurs far more lines than the one between youth and adulthood.
Kidman and Jacki Weaver (the latter in a bit part as Charlie’s aunt) also give big performances, to varying degrees of success. All of which leaves Wasikowska as the sole subdued presence. A morose, quiet teen living within her own insular world, India is instinctually at odds with her mother and content to wander the grounds of their aging rural home. These sequences give Stoker the air of a rotten fairy tale, a touch emphasized by Park’s occasionally surreal imagery and India’s anachronistically prim outfits. (After this and Alice in Wonderland, Wasikowska proves to be a costume designer’s dream.)
It’s a bit jarring, then, when we suddenly see India in a contemporary high school. Initially hostile to Charlie – mostly because of the way her mother wilts before him – India begins to come around when he proves to be a helpful buffer between her and some harassing boys in her class. (Why he’s hanging around her high school is another matter.) As the movie goes on, India’s conflicting emotions – grief, anger, jealousy, desire – begin to form dangerous currents and eddies. Eventually they’re spilling over in a torrent, such as the fantasy sequence in which she and Charlie perform a piano duet and she responds to his slithering style with a combination of revulsion and lust.
In such scenes, Stoker captures the way adolescence blurs far more lines than the one between youth and adulthood. The movie recognizes that other, more troubling things can become indistinct at this age. The line between family and foe. Between independence and defiance. And, especially under Park’s direction, between violence and sex.
It’s that last element where Stoker becomes lurid to a fault. There is a scene involving an attempted rape, and while India’s startling response fits into the movie’s overall tone of psychological dissonance, it also relies on assumptions that are dubious at best. In equating sexual and violent behavior, the moment negates the important distinction that rape is as much an abuse of power as it is a sexual act.
In the end, then, Stoker is a bit limited by its shock-movie sense of abandon. The picture doesn’t reveal all that much about violence or sexuality except to acknowledge that sometimes the human mind can disastrously mix the two. The intricacies of the psychology behind this fact – let alone any consideration of the ramifications of depicting it – are beyond this sleekly stylish movie’s purview.