Stoker (2013)

Directed by Park Chan-wook

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In Stoker a troubled young girl is pent up in a large mansion with her bereaved mother after the death of the girl’s father.  An uncle she never knew about then shows up with a sinister charm, and it’s clear immediately that something is afoot.

India (Mia Wasikowski) doesn’t exactly mourn her father but does question the ways other grieve, specifically her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  When Evelyn wants to do some shopping India reminds her that in certain time periods the wife was expected to mourn her husband for two years after his death.  Her suspicion of just about everyone around her says something about the situation or about India herself, we just don’t know which.  When Charlie (Matthew Goode), her father’s brother, shows up on the outskirts of the funeral (seen through literal heat waves that distort his image), he feels immediately like a predator, but it might also just be that seen through India’s eyes everyone is a predator.

Charlie flatters Evelyn, with their behavior growing more flirtatious, but he always has eyes for India.  She wonders why she’s never even heard of him, then discovers a sh*t ton of letters he wrote to her, allegedly from all over the world.  Later he will learn that Charlie was institutionalized after he killed a third brother in childhood.

Though Charlie turns out to be a predator, this doesn’t neutralize India and her perspective.  Her gaze remains as loaded as before, and we learn that she is rather similar to Charlie, possessing much the same bloodlust.  It’s the reason her father took her hunting as a child, it’s told to us, so that he might prevent her from doing something much worse.  With her father and his hunting trips out of the picture, that “something worse” becomes all the more inevitable.

India will learn a lot about herself over the course of the film, flirting with Charlie as with death itself.  They play a highly charged, erotic piano duet at one point and in another he stalks her into the woods while she’s with another boy, and when that boy grows violent, Charlie swiftly immobilizes him and offers him up to India like a feeder mice to a snake.  That boy’s death in nature is similar to so many movie deaths, but the way it’s shown on screen is as viscerally disturbing as any in recent memory.

Like with other Park Chan-wook films this one is bold, vivid and electric.  It’s put together like an opera, sound and image in perfect unison.  The camera moves in fascinating, rhythmic ways, and many scenes are cross-cut so that we find parallel meaning in otherwise disconnected moments.  It’s a sort of ballet in which everything is beautiful, even if morbid.

And similar to The Handmaiden this film concerns a character essentially imprisoned within a castle.  Both India and Evelyn remain stuck, like dolls in their package, and the gothic (is it gothic?) world of their estate makes it feel as though this is a period piece.  It’s only when we finally see a character outside of the estate, as we follow India to her high school, that we realize this is set in modern day.  It’s both disorienting and amusing, as if undercutting the drama of this highly dramatic family and story.  At the same time there are a few funny moments in which the girls in India’s class obsess over the handsome Uncle Charlie as he quietly stalks her from not so far away.

The film has something to say about nature versus nurture, and nature wins out.  I suppose all three of Charlie, Evelyn and India’s father try to control her impulses or at least keep them at bay.  She is handled like a wild creature, marveled at but manipulated.  In the end she will break free, but it feels inevitable, not like she had any other choice.  Maybe it’s that Charlie’s hopes to make her in his image, to hide her impulses like he has hidden his, contrast with her father’s attempts to give her a way of expressing this silent rage.  They both try to manage her, and neither exactly gets away with it.

Up Next: Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Peppermint Candy (2000), Shallow Grave (1994)

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