She stands in the fields of grass and flowers as the wind rushes through her hair. When Mia Wasikowska smiles, we come to realize that this is a girl who has crossed the threshold between adolescent and woman. The camera lingers in freeze frame on the afternoon gusts rushing up her skirt, crystallizing her peaceful acceptance of who she is and always was destined to be. For her, adulthood is not the burden of responsibility, but a welcome release of her most forbidden desires. This is the story of a girl rolling in the grass drenched in her family’s bloody legacy.
Stoker, written by Wentworth Miller (yes THAT Wentworth Miller, from Prison Break), is a Gothic ode to the melancholic dread of those wonder years during which we become someone else. Told through the haunted eyes of its disturbed heroine, India Stoker (Wasikowska), the film could have been endangered in more traditional hands. It is easy to see how this movie might have become a self-serious “character study” complete with all the naturalism and shaky cam that implies. But, as Korean Park Chan-wook’s first English feature, Stoker embraces the Gothic yearnings and poetic licenses that its title entails. After all, the filmmakers are very open that the Stoker family of the film is named after Victorian novelist Bram. And while there are no pointy teethed counts in this picture, its atmosphere has a vicious bite.
On India Stoker’s 18th birthday, she receives the strange gift of a key for an unknown lock and the information that her father (Dermot Mulroney) has died in a horrific car accident. Already a girl who dresses like Wednesday Addams, the loss of her father and one friend can only send her deeper into her introverted shell. One in which she is both the target of ridicule and lust for all the boys at school. However, mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) finds it much easier to overcome the loss of one male Stoker for the seeming upgrade to a younger, more handsome one in Charlie (Matthew Goode). Charles Stoker, ever the friendly gentleman, only wants to fill the loss of his sibling for the grieving family and within a day is literally wearing dead Richard’s baggy pants. Evelyn moves on from one brother to the next at a speed that would make Queen Gertrude blush, but Uncle Charlie only has eyes for India. Whether they’re eyes of concern or something darker is, along with the key, one of the many family secrets that Chan-wook takes his sweet, mischievous time unlocking.
Chan-wook seared his name into fans of suspense and melodrama around the world with his “Vengeance Trilogy,” culminating in the lurid classic Old Boy (2003). He brings that same measured tension to this psychological fairy tale. For while it is clearly inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt (1943), right down to the darkly mysterious and charismatic Uncle Charlie, those influences are ultimately a jumping off point into something far more wicked. Wasikowska, having already played romantic and literary heroines like Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre, brings her moody screen presence of age in this story. Like those roles, India is a classic amalgamation of literary tropes who spends her days slinking around empty gardens and hunting wild birds to add to daddy’s collections. However, this withdrawn creature is of a world far more fantastic and strange. In the Stoker House, the insidious goes hand-in-hand with the incestuous like a pair of star-crossed lovers about to embark on a killing spree. Chan-wook envisions their world as one of elegant dolly shots, saturated frames that emphasis the internal and the darkly beautiful over the real or the natural, and erotic hallucinations bursting with all the violence and rage of youth. It is refreshing to see a filmmaker embrace the artistry and visual advantages of the medium when telling a thriller or melodrama that delves into the strange and grievous without ever becoming salacious gratuity. At the center of it all remains Wasikowska’s ghostly face. But rest assured, we are not seeing the world from India’s view. Rather, the world Chan-wook creates is shaped in her delicately twisted image.
Goode and Kidman are allowed the freedom neither has seen in years as two forces pulling at India. One is the mother she never loved and whose resentment is only returned for her sudden infatuation with Charlie, an uncle India both despises and swoons for. Goode is appropriately creepy and hypnotic in his deliberate readings as a man who is more than Evelyn will admit to herself. Kidman seems equally relaxed as the frivolous and long-suffering mother whose love for a daughter is more an obligation than an actual emotion. Seriously, this is a girl who favored hunting in the dark woods with her father to gabbing about boys between spoonfuls of ice cream with mom. What could a woman like Evelyn ever have to say to her? Still, when mom learns of Charlie’s true intentions, one wonders if she is as much repulsed for the sake of her child or angered by the competition.
Late in the movie, Jacki Weaver throws herself into this dysfunctional setting as Aunt Ginnie, a Stoker who knows all the dark murmurs Charlie and his brother kept hidden from the women. Evelyn doesn’t wish to hear anything about the past, lest she be reminded that, with her strawberry hair she is not a real ravened Stoker within whose flock she nests. But it’s India’s birthright to know the truth about Uncle Charlie, no matter how hard he tries to bury it from the curious niece. It’s in these lingering parlor games that girl and uncle play, which gives the movie its savored dread and sly enjoyment. Unfortunately, the third act revelations come more with a standard “oh” and thud than a blood curdling scream. Despite these mild narrative disappointments, the visceral lust and outrage they awaken in India are as powerful and surprising for the audience as they are for the character. No, there is nothing supernatural here, but many monsters rise in this Gothic nightmare.