Listen to them, children of the night.
What music they make.
The two fundamental posts of narrative cinema are cause and effect. We have the catalyst, which brings forth the effect, the production of change. For 18-year old India Stoker, it's the untimely death of her beloved father and the perhaps timely introduction to her uncle Charlie, who moves in with India and her mother. He's an uncomfortable presence, pleasant but with a shimmering behind his eyes that's both seductive and sinister.
India herself is neither seductive nor particularly sinister. She begins the film in a old-fashioned white gown, dancing around the garden searching for her birthday present that her father customarily hides. All he ever gives her is the same comfy looking but unattractive shoes, slightly larger every year, but she still goes about the search with childish dedication. Later, at her father's funeral, she squints at her teary-eyed mother, in an almost observatory fashion, simply curious about the whole thing. She views death with an apathetic squint.
And then, uncle Charlie waltzes into her life. Her quickly recovering mother seems eager to dip into his persuasive charms and his soft voice, becoming weak at the way he purrs over every deliberate word. India is not so sure. She deliberately avoids him at every turn as he slowly crawls his away around the brain of her mother, but as she finds more and more of his secrets stashed in the dark corners of their home, she only finds herself more and more drawn to him.
Stoker is the English-language debut of Korean director Park Chan-Wook, known for his stylish and violent Vengeance Trilogy. The film itself is a weird but intoxicating hybrid of Hitchcock by way of psychosexuality. The script frequently nods to Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, which houses its own sinister uncle Charlie, but Stoker goes beyond the referential. Chan-Wook captures the tension of a Hitchcock piece, the little details combined with a big picture that constantly keeps an audience on the edge of their seat. Matthew Goode's Charlie is the essence of this. His presence is so sinister and almost predatory, but the way he manoeuvres what could have been a caricatured role into a natural and charismatic performance is wonderful. Towering above India on the stairs, he speaks down to her and asks 'Do you want to know why you feel at a disadvantage right now?' It's a question he could be asking directly to the audience. He's a truly disarming presence.
Mia Wasikowska plays India with an evolving, crumbling adolescence that's genuine and frail, a girl who still has yet to find a sexual awakening or perhaps any kind of awakening. She condemns her mother for not mourning her father for very long, almost repulsed by the way her mother has so quickly changed from grief to affection for Charlie. There's a petulance to the way she questions her mother's motives, a refusal to understand. Nicole Kidman as her mother Evelyn Stoker is brittle and cowardly, hiding in her bed until the afternoon and dedicated to the falsities of manners. When an inquisitive Aunt comes to the house, any mention of her past husband and Charlie is fiercely brushed away.
India, like her mother, does begin to find comfort in her uncle. Not one of mourning, a sharing of grief, but in a replacement. The hunting trips she and her father took before his death become something entirely different with Charlie, a more extreme version and yet, to her, just as natural. When viewing the stuffed animals in her father's study, her mother remarks with disdain that she was always very good at killing things. Was her uncle the cause of this transformation, turning a young girl into something cruel, or did he simply bring out what was buried underneath the clunky shoes and the swirly ice-cream? The film never explicitly answers the question, and ends on a beautifully cryptic image that will be rattling around the brain for days.
Chan-wook pulls the audience into India's development with his astounding use of imagery and symbolism. Obsessed with details and with a powerful grasp on cinematic language, he very much loads every scene with visuals that are punchy and remarkably deep. He's the sort of director who doesn't include a shot unless it has meaning, and Stoker is absolutely painted with Jungian and Freudian symbolism. A shot of a long-legged, thin spider crawling up India's leg and scuttling under her skirt is so laden with meaning and interpretation that it could be debated by film students for hours. It sometimes threatens to overwhelm the film, but Chan-wook's endless well of creativity stops the film from being crushed by the weight of its themes. He's endlessly playful and witty, combining richly textured cinematography with unorthodox editing to create a beautifully stylish film with the substance to back it up.
Much like its Charlie, Stoker is a film both witty and warped, seductive and sinister. The three central performances are wonderfully played, combined with Chan-wook's undying love for the cinematic language. Wentworth Miller's script is never wordy, instead planting seeds that are allowed to blossom into a challenging but always interesting and engaging film. India Stoker's journey is not a pleasant one, dripping with morbid sexual tension violence as it is, but it's told with such passion and inventiveness it's impossible not to be sucked in.