I recently listened to a song I love, and instead of it being played in a minor key the way it was written, it was played in a major key. At first the change seemed subtle, a different note here, a curious chord change there. Soon enough though, it was clear that what I was listening to was wrong. The changes were slight, but the effect was indelible…such as the changes we see unfold between a mother and daughter when a distant relative comes calling in STOKER.
The movie begins with the off-screen death of Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney). He is survived by his wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and his daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). The death brings an unexpected strain to the mother and daughter as Richard and India shared a close bond that Evelyn and India never did. Richard was the one who fostered India’s creative nature, often turning gestures like the giving of birthday gifts into an elaborate search.
Richard’s death leaves India and Evelyn to pick up the pieces: forcing them not only to co-exist on a closer level, and confront just how different women they are.
Walking into all of this, completely unannounced, is Charlie (Matthew Goode). Charlie is Richard’s long-lost brother, a man Evelyn says has been travelling Europe for years. His reappearance at Richard’s funeral causes a stir. To the women in the family who know him, his return is cause for concern. To Evelyn, his return sparks a curious and completely inappropriate fascination.
To India though, Charlie’s appearance comes with a sensation one gets as summer turns into autumn. She sees things that his arrival triggers in her mother, and she is unimpressed. However, she also sees something in the way Charlie carries himself – and specifically, in the way he carries himself around her – and she is intrigued.
As India, Evelyn, and Charlie spend more and more time together, they will be forced to confront where life is leading them, now that their song has moved from a minor key to a major one.
STOKER isn’t setting out to do anything new. Its story will seem familiar to many, and even derivative to some. The question one needs to ask oneself coming away from the movie is how much that matters. I, for one, don’t think it matters all that much. I don’t believe the story needs to blaze any new trails because there is so much else that the film does so well – specifically, the sensory delights it unloads on its audience. What’s more, STOKER is able to use many of those sensory moments to underline its theme of the end of innocence.
Any old hired gun could tell the twisted tale of a distant uncle coming to visit his sister-in-law and his niece. Any director with half a brain could turn that tale into a warped love triangle that swims in the wake of the patriarch’s death. However, what director Park Chan Wook brings to this American gothic soap opera is a lot of wonderful visual cues. He takes details seemingly simple and innocent, and tilts them just far enough so that the audience suddenly feels uncomfortable with the goings on. It’s the difference between a child wearing her parents’ clothes to play dress-up, and wearing them to assert maturity.
The former seems endearing, the latter brings one pause.
There’s a lot of instances that bring one pause in STOKER, and besides the way these moments are told, it’s the way the moments are embodied by Mia Wasikowska that makes them work so well. She is able to embody both the innocent and the dangerously curious. She puts it in her eyes and she carries it in her posture. She is able to relate to Matthew Goode both as an intrigued distant relative, and as an enticed romantic interest.
Several times over, she will do something as simple as hold an object, or take a bite of food, and the gesture seems to come with many meanings. What’s most intriguing is the way some of these moments begin as one thing, and soon turn into something very different…something uncomfortable…something wrong. The path from one to the other has to be walked with grace, lest it seem forced. Wasikowska has the uncanny ability to walk this path gracefully every time she is told to. STOKER is her show, and she plays her part marvelously.
Wasikowska’s performance as India is the physical embodiment of what fascinates STOKER the most: how our worlds get thrown into upheaval when a stranger arrives (Here the volume gets turned up even more, since Charlie’s arrival also happens during a death in the family). Suddenly we sit up a little straighter, comb our hair a little better, and hang on their every word. Their newness could pull us in directions we never believed ourselves capable of, and have us seeing the world in different ways. Those different ways aren’t always to our benefit, but we become so caught up in the excitement of them that we neglect to see how morally compromised we have become.
Sometimes we don’t notice what these strangers have done to us until it’s too late.
The way STOKER surrounds its audience with these ideas, and the way it embodies them with blowing reeds and dripping drops is what makes it such a seductive film to experience. It blends the colours on its canvas in such a way that we feel like we’ve never seen them before, even though we clearly have. It’s a technique befitting of the story’s warped morality – allowing us to understand how people could do the depraved things they do. It’s something about the elements in play and the way they are coming together. We should clearly know what the outcome will be, but something about the way things are mixing together makes us think maybe this time, it will be different.
Spoiler alert: It never is.