Far less than the sum of its parts, almost every opportunity in Stoker is a missed one, with the exceptions being Chung Chung-hoon's photography, which is almost reason enough to recommend the film, and the two and a half great performances so unfortunately underserved by an underwritten script.
Directed by Park Chan-Wook
Written by Wentworth Miller
With Mia Wasikowska (India Stoker), Matthew Goode (Charlie Stoker), and Nicole Kidman (Evelyn Stoker)
Spoiler alert: high
Park's Oldboy is probably my fifth—let's say my fifth—favorite movie made since I was born. What we've got here, by contrast, is a real Lady Vengeance: a gorgeously fussy film indifferent to the mess of its own script, never quite cohering as an integral whole.
Which is odd, in that Miller must have been inspired at least in part by Oldboy when he wrote his semi-famously long-unproduced screenplay back in the late '00s. Stoker is about what would happen if Oldboy's villain Lee Woo-jin had had a brother instead, and thus had to wait around for a while till that brother had a daughter.
Though I've given this review my second-highest warning, I doubt it really counts as any sort of spoiler that Charlie Stoker is, if not quite the antagonist of Stoker, a bad dude, and its inciting incident. In fact, Stoker lacks a clear antagonist—unless the general Judeo-Christian prohibition on killing people counts as an antagonist (it does not)—and this is one of the many ways in which it fails to really tell a story entirely worth telling.
"I'm definitely not evil!"
The story starts, however, more than promisingly enough. It begins on the day of Richard Stoker's death. His daughter and his wife, India and Evelyn, grieve. India, particularly, is affected, because unlike Evelyn, she was as close to her father as a daughter could be. Constantly at each other's side and as often as not in the wilderness hunting some wild game or other, they were sure to bring back a new dead animal to mount upon their mansion's wall.
The mother and daughter, with even less in common now that their husband and father, respectively, is worm chow, withdraw from each other, their distance and the lack of any sort of love between them becoming obvious. Forcefully filling the void, however, is Charlie Stoker, the uncle India never knew existed, and who will be staying with them for the indefinite future.
"I live here now for no adequately explained reason."
India takes an immediate dislike to Charlie, and distrusts him. Evelyn, by contrast, is almost as quickly seduced by his good looks and dark charisma. India's instincts prove the more accurate ones, as Charlie is a totally deranged murderer.
But, rather than repulsing her, learning his secret draws India closer to him, and when he saves India from an attempted rape by a classmate by breaking the boy's neck in front of her, she realizes that the only difference between her and Charlie is that she is still waiting for her opportunity to kill. Charlie, somehow, knew all along, and Stoker is basically the tale of how Uncle Charlie grooms his niece into his homicidal child bride.
Sort of, anyway. If you're waiting for the obviously incestual text of Stoker to ever manifest in any particularly interesting or even shocking manner—and let's do no prospective viewer the disservice of assuming them to be so stupid that they might read it as subtext, although I suppose it's never explicitly stated—you'll still be waiting long after the credits have rolled, the piracy warning has screened, and your player has returned you to the disc menu.
"I would like to extend to you an invitation to the pants party."
No, Charlie Stoker definitely wants to have sex with his niece—conveniently just turned 18 because if there's one thing that crazy sexual deviants do, it's wait till a universally agreed-upon age of majority to put their dicks into their younger relatives—and there's a definite reciprocated attraction, based in part on the fact that Goode is a svelte demigod, but founded principally on their shared interest in being sex murderers.
What, are you trying to tell me that masturbating to the image of your attempted rapist's snapping neck is not a normal, healthy sexual fantasy? Whatever, dude. Maybe you should read your Kinsey.
This is all well and good for the kind of fucked up and thought-provoking exploitation film for which Park is renowned, but Stoker is mostly set-up, and occasionally terrible set-up at that, rather than payoff. What I've presented in terms of themes is all there is to it, except for the violence, which is too off-screened and too tame when onscreen to be considered a reason for this film to exist in itself.
The closest there is to actively taboo sexuality in this movie is an admittedly thrilling piano duet, that takes place in the first half of the film when Stoker still has a sense of momentum; but an hour later, the sexual relationship reaches a "climax" that must be considered mild even by the differing standards of the foot fetishists it seems geared toward.
Yeah. Hot. Sure. Whatever.
Back—back—and to the left.
The problem with reviewing Stoker is that, once I write it out, it seems like a far fuller, far more exciting and confronting film than it is. It seems like that, because Stoker is not a little bit of a tease.
To give it credit, Stoker is never boring—Miller's strategic pacing may be off, but it's more than made up for by Park and Chung's tactics, and at an operational level its actors are wasted only a little bit. Mia Wasikowska does a phenomenal job presenting the transformation of the goth girl into a fearsome huntress who knows exactly what she is. Matthew Goode remains every bit the man who brought Adrian Veidt to life in Watchmen, and he certainly has the presence here to create in Charlie Stoker a sinister force to be reckoned with. Nicole Kidman doesn't get to do much but play a drunk and useless woman who's aging especially well, but when she's allowed to be that little bit more, she brings an anti-maternal ferocity to the role so ugly that it makes you side with the serial killers over her so much more banal version of evil.
And yet despite all this, Stoker is not wholly satisfying, not because it lacks the elements to make for a bracing cinematic experience but because it mishandles so many of them.
Let us begin with the setting. It's never entirely clear what year this movie must be occurring in until Charlie mentions 1994 as the vintage of both a bottle of wine and the birth year of his niece. That places Stoker in 2012. Almost everything else about the film, however, screams the past, some hazy 196X: from the Stokers' mansion complete with a cadre of domestic servants; to the sweater-vest wearing murderer whose only obstacle to returning to the world from the posh sanitarium that amounts to a hotel for the eccentric rich is the way he drags his heels on certifying himself sane; to the apparently withered state, which has as little interest in India Stoker's welfare as it does Charlie Stoker's incredibly creepy goings-on post-release from his mental institution and the missing persons reports that crop up in his wake; to India's lack of a driver's license at age 18 and, as a wealthy young woman, an automobile; to the non-appearance of email and the Internet, which would have made the great aunt plot point largely moot.
Almost every detail slams home the idea that this happens in another century entirely. Indeed, when black folks come to Richard's funeral I had a brief feeling of pleasant surprise that the director could be so progressive as to imply he might have had negro friends.
The goal with Stoker's ultra-WASPy neo-Hitchcock may have been to create an illusion of timelessness, but the result is a film so lost in temporal eddies that when cell phones show up it's almost as unexpected as would be the appearance of flying cars or a dinosaur.
The script's failure to chronally cohere with the external world is, however, a minor sin in comparison to its own internal time loops. The (I guess) first act ends with the trailer-worthy (and trailer-deployed) line from India to her uncle, "We don't have to be friends. We're family." This is probably the instant that their relationship should move from India's wise but increasingly-tiresome ambivalence and mistrust toward Charlie into cautious friendship, horizon-opening murder tutelage, and ultimately at least one scene of crazy incest. It doesn't. The plot circles the point for another twenty minutes, the same way it's circled for the previous thirty.
It's not till Charlie saves India from her would-be rapist that their relationship at last crystallizes, and at this point it's far too late for their dynamic to be anything but rushed, so that when she must choose—I'd say "finally must choose," but they have not gone on so much as a single human hunt together at this point, and she has not yet actually killed another being—it feels not so much like the climactic last act of conscience that India will ever commit before fully embracing the life of a killer, but rather a quick cure to an entirely unexplored Elektra complex.
And speaking of would-be rapists—if time loops like Groundhog Day for India and Charlie, other scenes get time warped entirely, thrown from the beginning of the movie, where they were clearly meant to be, to some random point in the middle. The boy Charlie kills first appears in one of these displaced scenes. He's a character who comes literally out of nowhere, almost a full hour into the film, despite his plot importance.
He goes back to nowhere too, one scene later.
He appears initially as a white knight, defending India Stoker from the school bullies that torment her. Mechanically, this scene has two functions. First, it introduces the male friend/plot device, ingratiating him to India and to us when he takes up her defense, so that it's a surprise (weren't you surprised?) when he tries to rape her later. Its second function was to show India's propensity for violence, insofar as she draws first blood in the brief, interrupted altercation between her and the bully, using a sharpened pencil to block a blow from his fist and inflict a shallow but no doubt painful puncture wound. It doesn't really satisfy this latter function, of course, because she uses perfectly proportional force to hurt somebody who, frankly, with his outstanding threats of grave bodily harm, has opened himself up to being straight-up killed with hardly any legal ramifications whatsoever on India's part. And if we're supposed to be considering any moral implications, they're swallowed up by the obvious permissibility of the violence employed.
It scans, then, as the shittiest shorthand imaginable. Yet, moved to the beginning of the film, rewritten with female, mostly social bullies of the Mean Girls variety, it could have worked, coming off as neither completely retarded, as it does, nor entirely in service to plot mechanics, as it also does. The sequence, though terrible, already looks rather cool; and how much cooler could it have been if this were our first glimpse of our heroine, if she'd followed up by sending her persecutor to the hospital, and the film had thus established the psychiatric troubles that it assumes she's always had but never once shows until it's convenient for her?
But instead it occurs as described, and (again) halfway through the film, when it's far too late in the movie for any of these introductions to be occurring—not just because of the running time that's elapsed, but because at this point she's already found the body of one of Charlie's (poorly concealed) victims. She may have, in an interesting touch, reacted with the low affect of a sociopath to her discovery, but the film is structured so that the only conclusion to draw is that Charlie's murder has taught her that violence is possible—when every other detail of the plot and her characterization depends vitally upon her being born bad, at least as inherently bad as her uncle. Stoker is a film explicitly about nature over nurture that totally forgets its own point for dozens of minutes at a time and it's incredibly annoying.
This is why Stoker direly needed India to be shown as violently disordered early and often. It's expressly stated that her father knew that something evil was lurking inside her—when it's said that he took her hunting so that she could do something bad to stop her from doing something worse, one is entirely in the dark as to what triggered his concern, other than his own history with his brother. I'm afraid her non-reaction to Park's crappy CGI athropods—here a shimmery pair of possibly-hallucinated spiders—is not nearly enough, even for someone who's seen Oldboy dozens of times and knows that bugs are meant to represent profound mental illness.
Up until a pretty late point in the film, it's still possible to surmise that India is the latest in a family of killers (note the scene where Evelyn catches India's hand, and wonder if it might not be a remnant of a draft where she was a predator too). This promised concept is far more intriguing than this largely toothless mash-up of Lolita (with an 18 year old) and Red Dragon (with an unconflicted villain protagonist who still barely kills anybody) that we actually get.
The final nail in the narrative's coffin are the revelations involving Charlie himself. We are constantly braced for the moment we discover that something in India's unremembered past has bound the two of them together—there is a "something," but it has nothing to do with India whatsoever, and hence is entirely perpendicular to the actual movie we're actually watching. Simultaneously delusional and magically correct, unrecognizable as even a cartoon of a human due to a script that confuses sociopathy with complete delusionality, Charlie has never met India once, yet knows she is just like him—and it's just as stupid a twist as I make it sound. Maybe stupider.
Despite all these flaws, Stoker is a watchable film—profoundly watchable, thanks to the very game actors and Chung's camera. And yet, one is always aware of how weak this effort is in comparison to Park's previous work in the same vein. While one never gets a sense of studio interference—it goes far too far already for a bit more blood or a bit more sex to have possibly mattered in terms getting an R, I think—you only feel Park passionately pushing the limits of good taste to find the truth of his material exactly once in Stoker's entire 99 minutes, and then quickly retreating back to the more comfortable position of simply not giving a damn about anything but his cinematographer's lush and enticing visual style.