I was originally on the fence about seeing Stoker, but I’ve been dying to get to 2013 films already and this was starting to sound less creepy than I had originally thought it might be, so I went for it. When I first saw the trailer and they introduced Matthew Goode’s character as “Uncle Charlie,” my mind immediately went to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, so that was another motivation to see the film. Not to belittle Chan-wook’s contribuations to his own film, but I really liked the Hitchcock references going on here. I read an interview where he said he was originally trying to stay away from all the Hithcock, but eventually just decided to go for it and I’m so glad he did. Not that that’s the only thing to like about this film, because it isn’t. It’s a well-made film in its own right.
The first thing you’ll notice about this film is the highly individual style. I have never seen a film that had quite the feel of this one, and I can only assume (having never seen any of his other films) that this due to Chan-wook’s particular way of directing. This guy really likes his slow motion, and I think it works for him. He also amplifies certain sounds, and I’m not sure if it’s because of the story or just for the effect of it. His camera movements also seem very deliberate; he moves the camera a heck of a lot in very interesting and obvious ways. It’s pretty clear what the story’s going to be like from the trailer, even if it’s not as clear how it’s going to end up. Because I’d seen it a couple of times and read some reviews, I was able to appreciate what he (or whoever designed them) was doing with the opening titles. Nicole Kidman’s name got brushed aside, and Matthew Goode’s name drifted with the wind blowing Wasikowska’s skirt. But, not everyone’s seen the trailer so I’ll clarify.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a eighteen year old girl who’s father has just died. She was apparently very close to him and taking it pretty hard. The beginning of the film is actually the very end; she tells us in voice-over the self empowerment and freedom that she has gained, now we just have to figure out how she became this way. She explains that everything she’s wearing is handed down from someone in her family, and that like her clothes her family has made her who she is today. She also explains that she can hear things that other people can’t. I’m not sure how literally we were supposed to take this, but based on how Chan-wook amplifies sounds that seem to be actually occurring I think India is just supposed to have heightened senses or something because she and her family are just really strange. This didn’t sit well with me; I felt like it was only there to enhance her similarity to her uncle and so Chan-wook could go crazy with the sound. It kind of stuffed something supernatural in there, and while the film was definitely weird it was more on the psychological side except with this, so it kind of bothered me. With this ability, she notices a strange man gatecrashing her father’s funeral from afar. Later, this man is introduced to her by her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) as her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), her father’s brother whom she never knew existed.
Charlie just moves right on in with Evie and India. Though Evie seems to trust him and take to him immediately, India is more wary of this guy who just showed up out of nowhere. Now, what I was thinking right around now is “of course that guy is not really her uncle!” but it didn’t turn out that way. Uncle Charlie is actually her uncle, but that doesn’t make him any less mysterious. Though Evie and Charlie get closer and closer, you can always tell he has his eyes on India and India knows it too but can’t figure out why. About halfway into the film it becomes apparent that he’s trying to draw her into his nefarious activities, and the explanation that is offered is that he just feels he has a right to her because they’re family and very similar and all that jazz. “We have the same blood” (I’m pretty sure that was a line; curse imdb for only having one quote up there). Looking back on it, this explanation seems kind of lacking but while watching the film I did not have a problem with it at all. I also might add (oh heck everybody knows I’m not going to be able to stop talking about Hitchcock here) that this “we’re the same person” thing is used in Shadow of a Doubt, and it seemed even more farfetched there, but that’s probably because it was 1943 and Wright was really hamming it up.
So although Charlie gets right down to seducing Evie in obvious and pretty effective ways, he very carefully and deliberately lets India see who he actually is. I don’t know if this would be considered a spoiler (it’s hinted at heavily in the trailer), but I’ll put out the warning anyways: SPOILER ALERT! Who he actually is, is a murdering psychopath! It’s obviously very calculated how he draws her in; it induces a lot of suspense and it also had me admiring Charlie’s manipulation ablities quite a bit. He buys some ice cream and has India take it down to the freezer, which happens to be in the creepiest basement ever, complete with cobwebs and a swinging light. From the moment I saw the freezer, I thought it looked like a good place for storing dead bodies. I wasn’t too surprised when I turned out to be right. It’s pretty obvious something is off about this guy, sending her into the creepy dark basement with a body-storage freezer, but that’s what’s great about this move. Now you’re anxiously awaiting the moment of discovery, and it puts the focus more on India’s reaction rather than the body discovery itself. There’s also the piano thing; Charlie originally tells Evie he can’t play the piano and she starts teaching him. With India, it becomes abundantly clear how absolutely false this is. India’s playing the piano and Charlie just sits right down next to her and starts playing with her perfectly. If that sounded creepy and messed up, that’s because it is!
Eventually things escalate to the point where Charlie and India participate in a murder together. I wouldn’t really say conspire because it was not really premeditated, but they definitely conspire after the fact to cover it up. India finds out more and more of the past murders Charlie’s committed but doesn’t seem to mind, and even when she starts to it seems that Charlie’s able to convince her that it’s okay. There’s a big confrontation scene where we find out about all of Charlie’s past, and even though it may have been better to leave a little mystery in his character, the flashbacks were brilliantly done. They were editted out of sequence so though you kind of knew what was going on, you weren’t sure exactly how the crime(s) was going to go down until the very end. It was pretty startling to find out exactly what Charlie did in his past.
The description for this movie that’s going around states that India “becomes increasingly infatuated” with Charlie, but that’s not really correct. This threw me for a loop for awhile; call me crazy (and you probably should) but I was convinced this film was going to end up with India and Charlie living happily ever after on some Badlands or Bonnie and Clyde style cross country murdering spree. What India’s attracted to is not Charlie so much as the act of murder; murder is the drug and Charlie is merely the enabler. I almost wonder if they did this to kind of throw us off the trail, or maybe I was the only one who thought this. I still kind of think I’m right though. Chan-wook shows a spider creeping around India’s leg a couple of times, once it even goes between her legs, so I though that the spider was supposed to symbolize Uncle Charlie. Flies show up too, when India’s looking through Charlie’s stuff in secret. So if you combine the two, Charlie is like the spider that’s drawing India, the fly, into his web. I really do think Chan-wook was trying to fool us here, and he had me going at least. During the piano scene he might have touched her back, it’s kind of hard to tell, but otherwise I don’t think he ever did, sexually of otherwise. There was a scene where he comes really really close, but then Evie shows up and puts a stop to it.
They actually both “can’t stand to be touched,” like at all. It’s never explained outside of the fact that they’re just weird. For my part, it reminded me of Marnie; the main character has a similar problem because of something in her past. The similarities to Shadow of a Doubt are pretty obvious; it’s mostly in the set up. The way India reacts is very different from young Charlie. I think it was a good call to give India a different name, instead of using the same for the uncle and the neice like in Shadow of a Doubt. The film is ultimately a really horrifically messed up coming of age story about how India becomes independent; she never really depends on her uncle, and her actions are somewhat determined by him, but not to the same extent as in Shadow of a Doubt, where she is basically just at Uncle Charlie’s mercy for the entire second half of the film. Also, the swinging light in the basement reminded me of how Vera Miles hits the light in Psycho after discovering Norman’s mother, and there’s another dead body discovery when the light is swinging in Stoker. There’s another similarity to Psycho, there’s even a shower scene here. It’s different but still pretty shocking. Also, India’s father stuffed the birds she killed when the two of them were hunting. Norman Bates anyone? There were a ton of cleverly done Hitchcock references here; so even if you only see it for that you won’t be disappointed.
I liked and appreciated Stoker; I didn’t love it but I think it’s a good way to start off 2013. Though it has a bunch of Hitchcock references, it is still most definitely Chan-wook’s film, which his highly individual style of direction will not let you forget. I personally loved his style; he was moving the camera around and I was eating it up. I thought the film was very visually compelling; there’s not a lot of dialogue giving Chan-wook the chance to show us things rather than state them. It’s a pretty creepy film, and it definitely had me thinking I was messed up for watching it the way I did, but it’s not going to scar me for life by a long shot. All in all, I think I started off 2013 on a good note with this film, while still having some more room to get better.
“We don’t need to be friends. We’re family.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars