8-21 March, DCA
Perhaps best known for his “Vengeance Trilogy”, Park Chan-wook has demonstrated a fascination with the darker side of humanity and Stoker, his first English language film, is no exception. Stepping away from the graphic violence of Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Park’s latest offering places emphasis on the psychology of its characters, a move which only serves to make the occasional instances of violence all the more striking.
Despite its title, Stoker bears no relation to the writer, Bram Soker, or his iconic vampire. However, Matthew Goode’s portrayal of Uncle Charlie is very much that of the charismatic predator. Goode’s character may bring to mind another Uncle Charlie and indeed the script, the screenwriting debut of Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller, is clearly inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. When an uncle she never knew existed turns up at the funeral of her father, introvert India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is naturally distrustful of the charismatic stranger. India’s mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), however, quickly becomes caught in the thrall of her attractive brother-in-law. Charlie also proves instantly popular among the family friends, but India’s initial distrust quickly turns to suspicion when the family housekeeper disappears following a confrontation with the charming uncle.
Atmosphere is key in Stoker and as much, if not more, is conveyed through the construction of each shot as by the minimal dialogue. The film takes place primarily within the Stokers’ home, and plays with the idea of the uncanny; Charlie being the strange and uncomfortable element introduced into India’s environment. The dinner table, usually the site of conversation and pleasantries, becomes instead a battleground of wills as Charlie seeks to dominate and ensnare India. Evelyn, meanwhile, flirts shamelessly with her brother-in-law in a kind of Freudian competition with her daughter, while India remains stoically distant. The camera glides around the table, tactically eclipsing one character with another, framing India and showing the diners in different spatial relations in accordance with their position in the power play. The exchanges between India and Charlie, shot in close up, are extremely striking, the light playing on Goode’s eyes in an expression that exudes power. Adding to the uneasy atmosphere of the film is the sense of timelessness conveyed by Stoker‘s design and costumes. The decor of the house; the Stokers’ clothing and the fixtures and appliances of their home suggest that the film is set somewhere, perhaps, in the 1950s. Charlie’s choice of wines for India, “1994: the year you were born”, however, places the film in the present. This loose sense of period is a deliberate choice which makes the ideas of Park’s film transferable, refusing as it does to tether the theme of domestic tension to any one time frame, thus highlighting predation as an integral aspect of human nature.
True to its Hitchcockian roots, Stoker is a thrilling psychological essay wrapped up in Gothic horror. India’s relationship with her mother is an example of the Electra complex that is brought to a head by the introduction of Charlie into their domestic environment. True to the film’s title, the charismatic uncle stokes the already tense situation between mother and daughter and quickens India’s realisation of herself. Although the motivations of its characters are perhaps not as clear cut as those of Park’s earlier films, the focus on dark impulses and close observation of the interactions between characters are thoroughly gripping.