United States/United Kingdom (2013). Dir. Park Chan-wook.
Full of sound and fury, Stoker signifies everything. Or rather, in Stoker’s cinematic universe, everything signifies. After all, Park Chan-wook’s newest (and first in the English language) is wildly, almost overwhelmingly cinematic, a strange film whose tightly-controlled palette of pastels is so beautifully saturated that they sometimes cease to be pastels at all, and whose every surface is so intensely polished that they don’t so much conceal depth as produce a different, weirder variety of depth, of reflections and shadows.
In a way, it’s the perfect thriller, but it’s also the perfect subversion of that genre. On her 18th birthday, the father of India (Mia Wasikowska) dies mysteriously. Attending his funeral is one Charlie Stoker, who uncannily resembles a younger, more handsome version of the deceased, and indeed whose very existence as the deceased’s younger brother was hitherto unknown to the surviving Stokers. Afterwards, he stays with the family at their creepily immaculate manor in rural Connecticut, professedly taking time off from “commitments in Europe” to help out in his late brother’s absence. The ensuing, dread-drenched family mystery is built entirely of stuff that would be only subliminal detritus in another, more typical murder mystery.
To be clear, I’m talking about the Freudian stuff. And the film, too, makes this very clear — the breathtaking atmospherics produce an effect of the viewer having stepped out of Plato’s cave and into some realm of pure, Oedipal archetypes. So instead of having an unspoken, incestuous subtext, the film — and thereby not entirely unlike Park’s Oldboy — is fairly blatantly about incest! And instead of featuring a shower scene with a Pyscho-style sense of repressed sexuality, this film’s shower scene is… well, I won’t spoil it.
Speaking of Hitchcock, Matthew Goode plays Charlie with a (way-more-than-)”not quite right” charm easily worthy of Norman Bates. Like Psycho, Stoker isn’t so much a movie of compassionate, human performance as of uncannily robotic anti-acting. (That said, Nicole Kidman’s wonderfully jarring take on this as India’s distant mother, is more Lynch than Hitchcock). And although Mia Wasikowska’s role as the hypersensitive India initially seems to veer toward a young adult fiction-ish style of adolescent disaffection, much of the film’s intoxicating momentum comes from the gradual realization — paralleling her transition to adulthood — that our 18-year-old protagonist might not be as horrified at the events taking place around her as the typical thriller has taught us to expect.
Okay, sure: the film’s demonic coming-of-age storyline is less an eye-opening exploration of authenticity and destiny, and more a delightful pastiche of those things. But even the campiest of parodies can’t help but contain a slippery kernel of the truth — and to be sure, this is far from the campiest of parodies. Instead, and not unlike, um, embracing your true nature as an incestuous spree murderer, Stoker provides the guiltiest of pleasures, and the guilt doesn’t entirely come from the fact that it’s so much goddamn fun to experience.
Also by Park Chan-wook:
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
Joint Security Area (2000)