If I had to use one word to describe South Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s first English language feature Stoker, it would be ATMOSPHERE.
The movie is dripping with gothic horror– the kind of story in which it is conceivable that a modern teenage girl would not immediately call the police after her potentially murderous uncle makes a pass at her. The mansion which serves as the main locale is overgrown with weeds, has a suspiciously large freezer in its ostentatiously creepy basement (all the better to stuff your dead body in, my dear) and appears to play host only to the most creepy of visitors. Honestly, in a place like this it would be shocking if someone wasn’t murdered.
The film opens with a young girl running through a field. She is alone. Then shots of the girl, still alone, are juxtaposed with her father’s funeral. We see her lying on her bed surrounded by shoes. It is at this point that we are introduced to the shoe motif. Shoes are overwhelmingly important in Stoker. Perhaps they are even more important than the human characters. By the time we see the third shoe montage half way through the film I believe we can reliably say that Park Chan-Wood has a bit of a shoe fetish.
Many critics have called this film pretentious. I don’t like it when that term is lobbed at movies or books. People are pretentious. Movies are exactly as they are, and we can only judge them on how well they succeed in and of themselves. I think the reason that people have called Stoker pretentious is that so much is it is overwrought with symbolism. LOOK at this girl popping a blister. LOOK at these boxes of shoes. LOOK at this man digging a hole. And finally, LOOK at this girl eating ice cream.
Of course any of these lingering shots could have great meaning. However a continual succession does not drive forward the story. Instead the audience will be tempted to simply roll its eyes, particularly when it is asked to attach great significance to the fact that someone is eating both vanilla and chocolate ice cream. Sometimes ice cream should just be ice cream.
At the funeral of India’s father we learn several important things. One, the girl is named India (Mia Washikowska), and she does not like to be touched. Two, there is a chilly distance between India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Three, India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she has never met, has come back from traveling the world to attend his brother’s funeral. Charlie quickly uses facts one and two to ingratiate himself with Evelyn, who may be a widow but is still young enough to be intrigued by the good looks and charm of this worldly brother-in-law. He has less luck with India, but a quick meeting of the eyes between the two guarantees that Evelyn will not be the only one receiving inappropriate advances from the houseguest.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Of course Charlie turns out to be a sociopath. Every lonely mansion needs a charming murderer; otherwise what would the residents do to while away the evenings? Of course his target is India. However he doesn’t want to kill her. On the contrary, he has been in love with her since he learned of her existence. He senses that she carries within her the same germ of evil with which he was born.
Park Chan-Wook and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung utilize a haunting tracking shot showing India moving through the funeral guests while Charlie follows close behind. It is the same kind of shot Joe Wright used in his Pride and Prejudice to show Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfayden) following Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley), save here it focuses on a character hunting a young woman rather than being enchanted by her.
For one thing, perhaps it is because Park is not an English speaker– he had to have an interpreter onset– but the dialogue is not consistent with the mood. Kidman, Washikowska and Goode are all accomplished actors, but even they cannot make a conversation about pork chops be anything but a conversation about pork chops. Furthermore I was suitably charmed against my will by Goode’s Charlie and I felt sympathy for Kidman’s Evelyn; however I never felt anything for Washikowska’s India. The problem is less with her acting than it is with the writing. I don’t understand this girl, and more importantly I don’t think there is anything to understand. In a film dominated by strong personalities, she is a cipher.
Stoker is interesting to look at and professionally made, but it doesn’t deliver on its atmospheric promise. Blood is everywhere, yet there is no emotional punch.
Did you see this movie? Or do you just swoon over Matthew Goode? I would love to hear from you?
Next: 2001: A Space Odyssey
(I own nothing related to Stoker)