By Michael B. Murphy
Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut “Stoker” is somewhat of an odd duck. As a meditation on the inherent evil that resides in all of us – how this seed of evil can be nurtured and encouraged by another – “Stoker” is a beautifully macabre experience, filled with rich imagery and symbolism that, no doubt, make it a worthy addition to the pantheon of Chan-wook’s films (e.g. “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy,” “Lady Vengeance” and “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK”). Unfortunately, its script (written by former “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller) often works against the films powerful visual storytelling, undermining it with several predictable revelations and some odd characterizations that will compromise the suspension of disbelief of many of its audience.
Evil is a common theme found throughout Chan-wook’s filmography and no where is it more prevalent than in “Stoker” There are multiple murders committed throughout the film and they are often ghastly. With one exception, none of the killings are done in self-defense – they are lustful executions. One female character masturbates in a shower, reliving the image of a young man’s neck being snapped with a belt. Many viewers of the film will find this too appalling and off-putting to be able to see the larger message that Chan-wook is attempting to convey about the seeds of evil that can blossom in all of us. The story focuses on Mia Wasikowska’s character, 18-year old India Stoker, a meek and sheltered young woman with porcelain skin, who is grieving the loss of her father, Richard (played in flashbacks by Dermot Mulroney), who was just killed in a mysterious automobile accident. Richard’s death prompts a visit from his brother Charlie, an uncle India never knew existed. Very quickly the family’s world is turned upside down as Charlie moves in and begins seducing both India and her emotionally unbalanced mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman who gives an great, icy performance).
As we get to know more about Charlie – he has just returned from a lengthy European business trip, he informs the family – we can immediately sense something is not quite right about him. Early on in the film, the loyal housemaid, Mrs. McGarrick, is seen shouting at Charlie, clearly not happy to see him return and inect himself into the Stoker family dynamics. Later, Charlie’s Aunt Gina visits and attempts to warn the mother and daughter about their new housemate.
It becomes quite evident early on it’s India who Charlie is ultimately trying to seduce. He sees an evilness inside of her that resembles his own and uses his good looks and charm to bring about a sexual and murderous awakening in his niece. Charlie begins to ensnare India in his violent web, making her complicit in his murderous actions and, you know what? India seems to love every minute of it.
As mentioned earlier, the main problem with “Stoker” is its script. Chan-wook does a wonderful job ratcheting up the suspense at all the right moments, masterfully juggling several taut and suspenseful intercutting scenes that all build into a crazed, blood-soaked crescendo. However, the big reveals are never that shocking, most are predictable, and no matter how damn good Chan-wook is at building up to the film’s payoff scenes (and he is that damn good), they are, in effect, flaccid and lacking the punch needed in a psychological thriller like this because the script shows most of its cards to soon.
It’s because of this that Stoker works best as a symbolic visual representation of how evil is attracted to evil – how the evil in all of us can be brought to the surface by the most unlikeliest of sources. Unfortunately, because of its script, “Stoker” never quite reaches the heights that it should, given its exceptionally talented cast and director, but despite all this, one cannot walk away from this film and not have a visceral reaction – which is something all quality art should evoke.