Film Grade: B-
Alfred Hitchcock is all over Chan-wook Park’s English-language debut, Stoker. Looming staircases, MacGuffins galore, malicious mothers, even the Master of Suspense’s most feared phobia, eggs, make an appearance. Though the Oldboy director could have done much worse in choosing an influence, the results feel less like an homage and more of a laborious exercise in allusions.
Four years after Thirst—a tale of a priest turned into a vampiric being—Park returns to Nosferatu influences. Alluding to the author of Dracula in the film’s title, Stoker is the family name of the newly widowed Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her teen daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska). Shortly after the funeral for the family’s patriarch, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), his younger brother Charles (Matthew Goode) moves in with the Stokers, becoming increasingly close with Evelyn, but with an eye on India. With an uncanny ability to appear as if out of thin air and favouring Ray-Bans when out in the day, there is something off about Charles, despite his handsome demeanor. Immediately suspicious, India begins to dig into her family’s secrets, while attempting to negotiate her sexual urges.
Managing to establish an intriguing sense of secrecy in its first part, Stoker eventually goes the way of the female revenge film (shades of Park’s Lady Vengeance). Nearly raped and subjected to gas-lighting, India’s story is one of sexual awakening directly tied to her killer instinct, a tired trope that doesn’t get revamped here. Literally stepping into adulthood as Charles slips a high heel on her little foot—one of many foot-centric scenes which would make Quentin Tarantino wild with desire—Stoker would be laughable for its contrived nature were it not for its frustrating gender politics. A female story only in that it happens to star two women, the film is haunted by and dominated by men who gallantly show India the way to be. In the end, her ultimate agency is thanks to them (and on her father’s dime). Though Wasikowska gives her all, the role is too limited to become anything more than a wronged girl going bad. This clunky turn shouldn’t be a surprise given the script was written by Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller, with contributions from Erin Cressida Wilson (Chloe).
What lingers in Stoker beyond playing a Hitchcock-ian version of eye-spy is Kidman’s performance. Much like last year’s The Paperboy, yet again she plays a semi-deranged aging woman whose sin is sexual lust past her so-called prime. Both are bold roles, and in the hands of more nuanced directors and writers might have suggested something about Kidman’s own career. While Stoker is miles ahead of the mess that was The Paperboy, it still merely uses Kidman as a type, as opposed to suggesting anything generative beyond the scope of the film. It’s adequate, but hardly stokes the flames of further thought.