With Stoker, the English-language debut from Oldboy director Chan-wook Park, we have confirmation that this philosophy student-turned-artiste of violence belongs in any conversation about the most talented filmmakers working today. Stoker is stunningly crafted at every level, from sound design and editing to mise-en-scene and cinematography, and the resulting film experience is as visually cohesive as it is thematically charring.
Stoker follows young India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) from her father’s death on her eighteenth birthday to her discovery that she has a magnetic Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who wears a tan suit to his brother’s funeral and inserts himself a bit too smoothly into the suddenly scarred lives of India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).
Charlie’s magnetism is appropriately polarized. As India wriggles between feeling pulled and perturbed by his new and permanent-seeming presence, Park shows that various other family members and associates regard him as a terror only to be discussed in private. Charlie gradually reveals that he shares India’s hypersensitivity — to sights, sounds, and perhaps even thoughts — and lures her into a fearsome tutelage she ultimately accepts. Carefully arranged visual symbols and cinematic language hint at themes about parents who shelter their children to the point of cloistering, and about how the intoxicating power of believing oneself special becomes monstrous if it survives into adulthood. By locking the audience into India’s perspective, and enforcing a languorous pace on a compact, darkly thrilling plot, Stoker will have you spellbound — just, you may not quite enjoy the experience.
Park’s is a dark magic, conjured here with major help from cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who also shot two-thirds of Park’s acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy. Chung and Park rarely allow the audience a square perspective on events, instead shooting primarily at upward or downward angles to their characters, and often tilting the camera out of parallel to the ground. Perspective is power, as Charlie instructs India: “Do you know why you feel at a disadvantage? You’re standing below me.” Park’s characters repeatedly interact with each other from different heights, forcing one to look up at another, and Park and Chung subtly lock the viewer into similar visual power dynamics through camera positioning.
Stoker has some wonderfully framed shots, as when Park and Chung locate the camera such that two characters in close proximity appear physically divided, or when India stands on a merry-go-round and a series of cuts eventually has her seeming to levitate, spinning, above the school acquaintance who has a crush on her. Their excellent craftsmanship isn’t limited to individual shots, either. They mix their technique carefully to establish and then violate audience expectations — for example by using only static shots in the opening sequence, and later employing swooping, dynamic camera movements to reposition and discomfit the viewer. The use of extreme closeups fading into matched compositions for flashback sequences will be familiar to Oldboy fans, as will the tight control of color and light to establish emotional associations around specific locations and characters.
But it isn’t just the camerawork that’s so striking and unified, it’s also what they put in front of the lens. Park and Chung define the Stoker home in pastels and flat light that suggest a child’s nursery for the majority of the film, before finding grimy darkness in its basement and bloody crimson in its bedrooms. Little details of mise-en-scene serve as a kind of visual icing. The “111” label on a motel room door is in a font that makes it look like a claw mark. The decor of the house’s interior, and the clothing and possessions of the characters, look so timeless that it’s unclear for a while if Stoker is taking place in the present day or the middle of last century. (Even the ice cream containers and the Jaguar convertible Charlie introduces look like they could be straight out of the late 1950s.) Shoes and insects take on immense symbolic significance. Moonlit skin in the left half of an almost entirely black composition gets echoed with a faintly glowing white lily in the right half. The eye delights.
For all its visual mastery, however, this is by no means a perfect movie. There’s one clunker of an expositional line — “India was so close to her father,” a housekeeper says early on, telling us what Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller couldn’t find a way to show. The gender politics of the film are a mess, and even though that’s arguably the intention — this is a coming-of-age tale, and the young woman at its center has a real dearth of female role models — it is disappointing that a movie with two such fascinating female characters refuses to define either of them on their own terms. India and Evelyn are presented entirely in relation to the men around them. Evelyn, played with all the hurt and seduction and cracked-mask aristocracy Kidman can throw at her, shows flashes of resentment that her life and family have deprived her of her independence. But ultimately Stoker suggests that her frustrations over her daughter’s distance and her own entombment in a quasi-mansion are petty, and imbues her with a startling gullibility that neuters the power of those hints at a dignified form of suffering. And where Evelyn is shown as lusty and foolish, India grows one-dimensionally monstrous and exhibits a sexual development that’s shaped by incestuous temptation and eroticized brutality. India eventually seizes autonomy, but in ways that suggest much of the blame for what she becomes rests with her mother. Is all the graceful filmmaking here in service of a weightless, socially regressive treacle? Is this an exploitative pander to our morbid fascination with serial killers, dressed up as arthouse?
Actually, no. Walking away from the theater, Stoker came into focus in ways that also helped me make sense of Park’s previous work. He seems to have a knack for capturing and mythologizing the ugliest obsessions of a given culture and mutating them into a frightful beauty. Honor and vengeance in Korea, and now, in America, serial killers and psychopaths and the childhood conditions that seem to explain them. Park’s truth, or the one to which he seems most attuned, is that our obsessions are deadly, wounding, and consumptive. His craftsmanship as a filmmaker is stunning, and he uses it to purposes surpassed in their brutality only, perhaps, by those of Michael Haneke. Stoker’s brutality is not in its on-screen violence. There is plenty of it, to be sure, and Park presents it with the same sensuality as in his previous work. But his camera also takes it in at much greater distance, using long shots or even positioning the impact moment of some of the movie’s violence such that the audience can’t see it directly.
There’s some mercy in that, perhaps, but there’s also meaning: for all the beauty and style of India’s evolution from sheltered child to raw, blistering adulthood, Stoker is also nudging us to examine who it is we’re rooting for in this story, and why. It’s holding up a warped, frightful version of America’s fascination with independence and self-determination, and suggesting that the tension between feeling cared for and feeling smothered can produce explosive psychopathy that’s as much nurture as nature. All while spinning a damned entertaining yarn in a tight 98 minutes.