Upon seeing Stoker, the first English language film of noted Korean horror auteur Park Chan-wook, I learned its supposed setting is rural New England even though it was shot, appropriately enough, in Tennessee since it very much comes across like Mulholland Drive had it been penned by the esteemed southern gothic playwright Tennessee Williams. But the official location does not much matter because the spic and span mansion where the majority of the film is set may as well inhabit its own time and place, separate from the the real world, a massive movie set which Chan-wook can dress up and manipulate to his heart’s content.
The film is directed to within an inch of its life – from a shot of a comatose Nicole Kidman that is so meticulously constructed (the wisp of hair that falls precisely) it utterly betrays its own sprawled-out intent to the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra song – Summer Wine – that shows up on the soundtrack and leads into a swooping shot of a motorcycle gang outside a club that appears to have been left over from the 1950′s Warner Bros back lot. To be sure, the screenplay, written by Wentworth Miller, intends to convey an unconventional and sordid coming-of-age tale but, above all else, this is a movie wishing to revel in its own making.
India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) eighteenth birthday coincides with the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney, only glimpsed in flashbacks). But was it a coincidence? That is what the movie intends to sort out. At the funeral reception her father’s brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), a mentally deranged matinee idol, of whom she has never heard, drops in out of the clear blue sky, apparently having spent the better part of his life roaming Europe.
Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), India’s selfish, distant mother, announces that Charlie will be staying with them for an indefinite amount of time. This is does not sit well with India and her suspicions are confirmed in the way Evelyn, who hardly evinces a traditional grieving widow, unsubtly, incestuously cozies up to Charlie, leaving everyone, including a visiting Aunt (Jacki Weaver), aghast.
The phrase for such a situation would be Nothing Is What It Seems – except from the moment we first see India first spy Uncle Charlie perched on a hill overlooking the funeral for her father we know full well nothing is what it seems. If cinema has taught us anything it is that strangers watching funerals from atop distant hills can only mean trouble. The buried secrets and requisite reversals, however, do not seem of much interest to Chan-wook, which is precisely what makes Stoker the savory experience that it is.
By overplaying the fact that horror awaits at the end, the film becomes a straight-faced but stylistic exercise in camp. Every moment here screams out of an interminable pre-shot set-up or, at the very least, month and months of storyboarding sessions. Consider the sequence when India is dispatched to the basement to put away a couple cartons of ice cream. The basement is more like a dimly lit dungeon, a top-drawer haunted house that charges $10, and when the freezer opens you half expect Bela Lugosi to rise up with an ice cream scoop. And when India returns to the kitchen from this little adventure we see her Uncle Charlie in silhouette brandishing a knife, wondering “Too cold for you?” It is all so amplified, you might laugh from sheer glee. I did.
That the film ultimately resonates rather than just being a rush is a testament not only to Wasikowska’s performance, restraint gradually giving way to intensity, but to the character she is playing. Her brooding masks something much more sinister and what is most shocking about this film (aside from the shot of the hairy hotel bar of soap) is how comforted we are by her fate.
Amidst all the auteurism, Stoker manages to maintain a faint heartbeat that grows stronger throughout, and the chilly air eventually transforms into a blood-soaked warmth we are powerless to resist. India is that heartbeat. The girl becomes a woman and the character, against all the odds and ninety minutes of moviemaking glitz, becomes real.