“Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.”
If you are a fan of director Chan-wook Park, you are used to the kinds of bizarre images and somewhat enigmatic story elements that dominate the landscape of Stoker. While none of the images here reach quite into the territory of Oldboy, it’s hard not to plug into the disturbed nature of the film’s themes and story. I left the movie with more questions than answers and a little bit lost as to how exactly I was going to approach this review. I had not seen Oldboy at the time of the viewing or since. I did go out of my way to get some exposure to the film’s famous imagery through clips and stills. Even still, I’ve never been more confused about a film than I am about Stoker.
Let’s start with what we can nail down of the plot. This is one of those films which starts toward the end. India Stoker (Wasikowska) is a very disturbed young teenager. She’s a social misfit and is rather shy in public. She was terribly close to her father. He was pretty much the only thing that anchored her in any kind of reality. He dies in a horrible car crash on her 18th birthday. She’s left alone in a large estate with her mother (Kidman). This is the day we “come of age”, some say, and that’s very much what happens to India. Her Uncle Charley (Goode) visits and ends up sticking around. She finds herself drawn to this uncle she didn’t even know she had. They do not really speak much but appear to have some dark connection. We get the feeling that he is there to guide her through this “coming of age” moment in her life. We quickly discover that she has an incredibly dark and morbid mind. He mentally seduces both mother and daughter but in very different ways. It is all leading to some very disturbing places. While it is never revealed or overtly suggested, I got the feeling that Park was trying to tell us that Charley might have been her actual father. His relationship with Mom was certainly suspicious. Of course, there are links to her father that suggest she might have inherited her bloodthirsty ways.
This is Chan-wook Park’s first English language film. He might have used the language, but he hasn’t abandoned the style he’s become known for. There are some incredibly shocking moments in this film that I assure you will not sit too well if you have a high sensitivity to these sorts of things. It’s not so much a gory film but one with juxtaposed symbolism that includes a rather tame eroticism with death and darkness. We journey into India’s mind and visit places you may wish that you hadn’t. If his intention was to shock and perhaps provoke thought, the movie is a huge success. If he intended something on the order of tight pacing and story, the film falls considerably short of the mark.
The true shining star in the film is the performance of Mia Wasikowska as India. She sells the morbid girl to a very chilling degree. She’s able to sell the mood, and that makes everything all that more disturbing. There’s not an ounce of the real actress here. She’s sold completely to the reel character and never gives us a second relief. That in itself only helps to feed the disturbing feeling you get. It’s honestly emotionally exhausting, because there is never any letup. Don’t look for comedy relief or even a breather. The pace rolls along like honey in an Alaskan winter. Park puts you immediately into a state of mind and holds you captive for 99 minutes. The question you have to ask yourself is if you are willing for him to do so. Did you ever get into a ride like a rollercoaster and have a second thought just as you realized it was too late? That’s how you’ll feel about Stoker after just a couple of minutes. All you can do then is “pray for strength“.