TW: violence, sexual assault, rape, incest
In a feat of stylistically beautiful horror, “Stoker” takes its audience on a warped jaunt, revealing the disconcerting details of a twisted family secret. The film’s masterful direction by Chan-wook Park (“I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay”) can only be described as tension inducing, with unique applications of focus and sound that highlight seemingly minute or unimportant details. “Stoker” is fascinatingly morbid, in that psychopathic “wow, this is really fucked up, but I can’t stop, nor do I want to stop, watching” sort of way.
The film opens with the protagonist, India, stating, “ Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free.” These words serve as an eerie premonition of future developments, most specifically of mental illness.
Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”) plays India, a pale teenage pariah, strangely reminiscent of Wednesday Addams, whose father dies in an automobile accident on her 18th birthday. This sudden death causes her father’s brother, Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), to surface.
India’s emotionally absent and selfish mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman), is drawn to Charlie, even after his aunt furtively warns India of his true nature. Charlie, quite the masterful seducer, gains the acceptance and intrigue of both India and mother, whom he validates in different ways. India suspects that Charlie has ulterior motives, but rather than finding him detestable, she grows more and more infatuated with him, possibly because she identifies with his socially unacceptable behavior.
“Stoker” does an incredible job of remaining unpredictable whilst outlining the hereditary components of mental illness, instilling similar feelings of psychological unrest—immense anxiety and melancholy—in the audience.
As a coming of age story, “Stoker” strongly emphasizes India’s womanhood. We are shown a series of flashbacks to India’s childhood as a tomboy who hunted with her father and never related to her ultra feminine mother. We see India’s teenage difficulty with relating to boys her age—stabbing a schoolyard bully in the hand with a sharpened pencil after he and his friends sexually harass her.
India’s sexuality is a huge focus of the film. She is very much attracted to her uncle whom she later finds kissing her mother. Confused and moderately distraught as a result of Uncle Charlie’s behavior, India seeks the physical attention of a boy from school. It is here that adolescent sexual frustration is so keenly depicted; India sees two people being intimate and therefore she wants to personally be intimate with someone, as well.
Whether India’s desire to “hook up” is her figuratively throwing the bird to mummy dearest or an attempt to be more like an adult, she is behaving like a typical teenager; India’s status as “not a girl, not yet a woman” (um, hey, Britney) is captured beautifully. However, India decides, mid-make out sesh, that she doesn’t want to go any further with than kissing. Her decision to cease their interaction and go home isn’t respected and she is physically assaulted and almost raped. This attempted rape chronologically divides the film into pre-assault and post-assault. What happens next is a huge spoiler, so you’ll just have to watch it for yourself. Know that it’s violent, though.
The rest of the film probes India’s psyche, inside which violence and death are associated with sexual enlightenment (wait until you see the shower scene!). India, a young woman, seems to lose not only her innocence but also her power over herself both physically and mentally. She is forced to make difficult decisions in order to protect both herself and her mother from the violence of men. The audience is left wondering whether or not India, like many women in abusive relationships, truly has much power in such situations.
I loved this film, because it made me so incredibly uncomfortable with my own emotional status (lyke, hey, this is so twisted, but I’m super into it and can’t stop watching). The extreme focus on minute sounds (sharpening a pencil, cracking the shell of a hardboiled egg), which served to rev audience anxiety up to a level I thought previously impossible, worked so well within the bizarrely gothic fairytale structure of the film. Essentially, Chan-wook was able to make me feel a vast array of emotions in such a condensed period of time that I left the theater in a state of physical anguish, albeit a most beautiful and fulfilling state of physical anguish.