Whenever a film delves into Freudian theory, there is an unspoken promise that you will be disturbed.  That Chan-wook Park may decide to explore the depths of the human psyche is no surprise, considering some of his previous work, most notably Oldboy (2003).  His Hollywood debut, Stoker, could be analyzed as a family melodrama/psychological thriller that is the perfect mixture of allure and (moral) disgust. The film was written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, marking a surprise screenwriting debut for the actor.

The movie begins with India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) standing proudly above a ditch, looking at something below her. The camera zooms in on her expressionless face, her black hair flowing in the wind, freezing the frame as if to make us notice every strand.  She is looking at red flowers and wondering “how they got their color,” emphasizing a theme that runs throughout the film – how do we become what we are.  “I wear my father’s belt on top of my mother’s shirt, this is who I am.”

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We are then transported back in time to a funeral – Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney), India’s father, has passed away in a freak accident, and an unlikely guest is joining the Stokers in this time of grief – Richard’s younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode).  There is something mysterious about this man, who has never met his brother’s family before and has now caused a creepy uneasiness between the Stoker women.  As Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman) becomes infatuated with him, her daughter grows more and more acute to her uncle’s strange behaviour and to the growing uneasiness he stirs at her father’s funeral processions.  What she discovers, to her horror, is that she herself is madly attracted to this stranger, who “looks just like her father,” and wears her father’s sunglasses and leather belt, two objects that become characters of their own in the film.  Suddenly an incestual love triangle shapes the Stoker family, culminating in a scene that superimposes an intimate moment India has in the shower with the belt-strapping of a crackling neck.

Shot by Chung-hoon Chung (who has photographed most of Park’s films, including Oldboy), Stoker is bathed in whites and pastel greens, colors symbolic of innocence, but also carrying sickly overtones.  The house the Stokers live in is situated somewhere in the suburbs; where exactly is not clear.  There is no indication as to time and place in the film, both in the plot and in the visuals.  The Stokers look frozen in time – the decors and wardrobe suggest that the action takes place in the 1960s (vintage sports cars, Ray-Ban Wayfarers, India’s saddle shoes). However, when we are transported to India’s high-school everyone and everything looks rather contemporary.  Stoker also makes one of the most effective uses of cell phones in film (a ringtone heard from below the ground).  Perhaps Park is suggesting that these characters are more timeless than we would like to think, that ancient fears and taboos still live among us.

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In terms of casting, it is clear that there are no coincidences here, especially where Matthew Goode’s performance as the fittingly-named ‘uncle Charlie’ is concerned.   I would argue that his dashing looks are an indelible part of the film’s visuals – he is an awful character but he is also awfully attractive.  The fact that the audience keeps expecting India and her uncle to form a couple just goes to show that we are dancing to Park’s whistle – our minds are polluted, and so we can no longer judge who is good and who is evil in the film.  As Evelyn, Nicole Kidman is chillingly perfect; look out for her crazy-eyed speech about why people have children towards the end of the film.  And as India, the virginal protagonist gone rogue, Mia Wasikowska combines her childlike looks with a rebellious cold stare that makes her the scariest of the Stokers, but also the most sympathetic. With characters that are so “bad” it is almost expected that the ending will be unsatisfactory.  However, the meticulous treatment of Freudian symbolism and the Electra complex, as well as the stunning visuals and great casting make Stoker this year’s first notable film.

By Radina Papukchieva

Twitter @Papukchieva

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About Radina Papukchieva

Radina Papukchieva came to live in, be consumed by, and love Montreal in 2003 from Bulgaria, with her mother and little sister. She is still a semester away from graduating from Concordia University, where she is doing a double major in journalism and communication and cultural studies, as well as a minor in film studies. Her interests include film, TV, and popular culture. And Woody Allen. She is a film writer for CultMontreal.com and co-creator of The Cafe Phenomenon. Her list of inspirational people includes Tina Fey, primarily. Among her other interests are music, art, literature, and of course, food. Her film reviews have appeared in The Concordian and The Mirror.

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