Seemingly wild, visually stunning, at times too long Park Chan-wook’s American debut is unfortunately a disappointment, not worthy of its predecessors Odlboy or Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. Perhaps the disappointment comes from the big expectations but then again, experience and knowledge should be able to do the trick. Or not, as we have witnessed in this particular case.
The film starts with the death of a wealthy Richard Stoker (Dermont Mulroney) and it follows the aftermath that befall his wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and their daughter India (Mia Wasikowska), who happened to turn 18 on the day of her father’s fatal car accident. At Richard’s funeral, Evelyn and India are introduced to Richard’s charming and charismatic brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), who has spent his life traveling the world. Shortly after Uncle Charlie announces that he will be staying with the girls indefinitely, much to Evelyn’s delight and India’s disappointment. From now on, for the most part of the film, we are focused on the coexistence between these three at their beautiful and somewhat gothic estate.
Stoker, a psychological thriller, is, in a lack of better word, a dead ringer for Alfred Hitchock’s Shadow of a Doubt with a hint of Psycho just to spice things up a bit. Both Matthew Goode’s and Joseph Cotten’s character share the name “Uncle Charlie,” but they also share Hitchcock’s, now famous, use of the likeable criminal, aka the charming sociopath (for example, villains such as Thorwald (Rear Window) and Norman Bates (Psycho) are, despite the fact they are ruthless murderers, portrayed as emotionally vulnerable and sympathetic characters. Also, In Psycho, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who (1) steals from her employer and (2) runs away to be with her boyfriend becomes a (1) criminal for her theft, and (2) immoral for having a pre-marital sex. However, the filmgoers are sympathetic to her due to her moral struggle, and moreover for the fact that when she finally decides to return the money and undo the crime committed she gets punished for it). However, this is not the only similarity. In fact, there are a number of Hitchcock’s themes, plot devices and motifs used within it as if he was trying to make a Hitchcock mashup, adaptable to the American milieu of the 21. Century. For example, the complexly intertwined relationship that develops between Uncle Charlie and India references Hitchcock’s use of the double (characters put in the same situation but of completely different personalities) with the young Charlie and Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. Many of Uncle Charlie and India’s key interactions occur on a staircase (staircases often play a pivotal role in Hitchcock films; in Psycho, several staircases are featured prominently: as part of the path up to the Bates mansion, as the entrance to the fruit cellar, and as the site of Detective Arbogast’s murder; in Vertigo, the staircase in the church plays a pivotal role in the plot; in Shadow of a Doubt Charlie Oakley tries to kill his niece by rigging a staircase to collapse and so on). Also a pivotal scene of Stoker takes place near a train track where the rumbling train makes an audile imposition, which references Hitchcock’s usage of trains as a sexual euphemism. The coming of age and a sexual ecstasy achieved in the bathtub had The Shower Scene written all over it minus the stabbing part (replaced with self-pleasuring): the peculiar whiteness of bathroom that stands out from the rest of the house, the camera angle, the symbolism of blood swirling down the drain, the climax achieved via murder etc.). Then there is a question of that scene towards the end of the film when a police officer pulls India over, a scene that perfectly mirrors Psycho‘s pull over moment. Both guilty, both fleeing the town, both female, both free at the end, but the ways of dealing with the given situation and obtaining the much desired freedom are placed at diametric opposition. Where Janet Leigh kept it cool and with dignity, as befitting a lady, which resulted in her own demise thus changing the pace and overall the course of the film from the middle onward, India Stoker took things on a another level consequently revealing the true color of the film in the process. But as faith would have it (or poor directorial choice), too much too late, and before you know it, the end credits have already started to roll.
Therefore, the ending, perhaps the most honest part of the entire film, managed to do what the rest of the film couldn’t, i.e. release Park’s unique signature, which as it turned out, throughout the entire duration of the film, did nothing but hid behind the “silk and powder”, under false pretenses imprisoned by the form leaving its audience with so many crucial questions left unanswered.
Text written by: Monika Ponjavic