Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
March has usually been a time of independent gems, or the rare blockbuster that’s feared to lose traction during a summer release. Strangely, this March has been pretty dead in terms of worthwhile films, and those that looked promising are falling flat. Stoker is the hotly anticipated English-language debut of director Park Chan-Wook, and considered one of the more anticipated films of the month. Unfortunately, a weak script ruins everything, and despite two solid adult actors, our young lead is duller than a plank of wood. Stoker certainly gets props for being a beautifully shot film, but it’s a lot like a museum: Beautiful yet cold.
After the death of her father, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is left to take care of her fragile mother Evie (Nicole Kidman). When India’s mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) arrives, India is disturbed about the shine he takes towards her mother. Eventually, India starts to wonder if Uncle Charlie is really the man he appears to be.
Park Chan-Wook is a director well-versed in creating visually stunning films; Stoker is just as beautiful and deserves attention for the intricate composition of shots and set design. Several scenes throughout are worthy of being painted from India surrounding by a lifetime’s worth of saddle shoes, to the staining of white roses red (although Django Unchained stole the thunder there). The throwback to a time removed from our own is evident in the 1950s clothing the trio of leads wear, and it propels the Stokers into further isolation when juxtaposed with teens or others who were modern clothing. The bathing of the house in light, and the way characters have light on their faces creates an air of beauty in a story that’s marred by tragedy and decay. Anytime you feel frustrated with the story, you can always say “It looks beautiful.”
The actors are just as beautiful, and I can’t think of a time in recent memory where Nicole Kidman looked so stunning. She’s always been beautiful, but the cinematography gives her an ethereal beauty, again contrasted with the dour, stark face of Mia Wasikowska. The character of Evie could have easily fallen into evil stepmother territory, but the script imbues Evie with loneliness. She’s more of an outsider than India is; having lost her daughter to her husband (Dermot Mulroney). The incestuous relationships that permeate the film start with the unseen one between India and her father. When Richard Stoker dies at the beginning, there’s a moment where Evie asks her daughter to go shopping with her; a typical mother/daughter moment. India immediately attacks her mother for not mourning for long enough. Evie yearns for human connection which makes her jump when Charlie starts to give her attention. I was afraid, based on the marketing that Stoker would play off the older woman /younger woman story but thankfully the one saving grace of the script is in removing that entirely. When Evie says in the trailer, “You were supposed to love me” it’s not to Charlie, as believed, but to India. The mother/daughter relationship has never been fraught with so much silent hostility and unrequited affection. Kidman is astounding – watch her speech about having children and try not to get goose bumps – and I wished her and Goode were allowed to hold the story up on their own.
I’ve adored Matthew Goode for awhile, and he returns to the screen playing a character ripped directly from Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. The trajectory of Charlie is cliché, but Goode is so slick and charming that he’s the perfect snake in the grass. His relationship with Evie is far more terrifying and affecting than his relationship with India because the older woman is so lonely. India is written to be a literal genius, so the audience doesn’t fear for her too much. Again, had Stoker been about Goode’s and Kidman’s characters, it could have been fantastic.
The flaws with Stoker come through in Wasikowska’s performance and the script. The young actress is falling quickly into Kristen Stewart territory, and only has one mode in this film: complete boredom. She looks like Wednesday Addams, and there’s nothing coquettish about her – which I applauded- but it also makes the relationship between her and Uncle Charlie to feel like he’s seducing a corpse. Wasikowska has one expression and believes that making bug eyes and lolling her head around looks like sexual ecstasy. When she does try to “act” for Uncle Charlie it’s just a smile with no life in it. The movie’s last five minutes want the audience to believe she’s capable of murder, and it doesn’t come through because the actress just looks bored. I didn’t understand her hatred towards her mother, and simply chalked it up to she’s an ungrateful brat because Wasikowska doesn’t do anything to convey a lifetime of taking care of her mother as the script claims.
Let’s discuss that script to wrap things up. It’s written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, and that doesn’t bode well from the beginning. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he simply takes Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, cuts it up and then can’t make the pieces fit together again. A prime example: India ends up in the woods with a schoolmate who has been a nice guy up to this point. Suddenly, he turns into a career date rapist and is quickly dispatched by Charlie, who we’re led to believe was stalking his niece. The complete 360 in the teenage boy is mind-boggling because there is absolutely no prior context for it. The only, and I mean only, reason it exists is because the script needed a reason to have Charlie commit a murder in front of India. That’s just one of several times where you can feel the screenwriter plugging the holes of the script.
Overall, Stoker is a movie that believes it’s far smarter than it truly is. It’s Shadow of a Doubt meets Lolita with none of the pathos. Had it been focused on Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman, something fantastic could have been created. Unfortunately, a dull leading lady and a feeble script only make this a rental.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.