Stoker, Park Chan-wook’s loose remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is one of those movies you’ll either love or hate. If you’re looking for Hitchcock’s straightforward mystery tale, and clean, spare black and white aesthetic, you’ll probably find it a pretentious, confusing mess. If you keep in mind that Stoker is not a realistic film, but, rather, a series of tightly focused images strung through a superficially realistic narrative anchored by Mia Wasikowska’s portrayal of one very strange 18-year-old girl, then it becomes a powerful meditation on sexual abuse and social isolation.
Stoker might best be described as Hamlet meets Alfred Hitchcock. 18-year-old India Stoker, Wasikowska, lives on a beautiful estate out in the country. This isn’t middle-class suburbia. It’s one of those gorgeous exurban palaces surrounded by a generously forested countryside that we all dream about. For India, after she learns about her father’s death in fiery car crash, it becomes an affluent hell. India’s mother, a middle-aged but carefully preserved Nicole Kidman, plays Gertrude to India’s Hamlet. Evelyn Stoker, who looks nothing her daughter, is a tall, fair, suburban housewife with bright red hair, and a vain, clueless narcissism. When India’s uncle Charlie, Matthew Goode, shows up the day after the funeral, we quickly realize that he’s going to be the film’s Claudius. He easily seduces Evelyn, then sets his sights on India.
A negative review in The New Republic remarked that Mia Wasikowska, at 24, is probably too old to play an 18-year-old girl. She’s also too beautiful and too composed to play an abused 18-year-old in a completely realistic way, but, under Park Chan-wook’s stylish direction she embodies the idea of an abused 18-year-old girl. If Mia Wasikowska’s too old to play an 18-year-old, she’s ridiculously young to have mastered acting so completely. With her lank dark hair, sullen expression, and refined, precise way of speaking — an Australian accent with all of its Australian intonations carefully removed — there’s a murderous rage in the way she walks, the way she slouches, even the way she chews her food.
Matthew Goode doesn’t look like an abuser. Handsome, well-dressed, socially adroit, he’s the last man we’d expect to see on “To Catch a Predator.” After Charlie Stoker moves in with India and her mother, we can see that India doesn’t buy his act for a second. But that’s the point. Charlie wants India to hate him. He enjoys it. It’s a game. Watching her squirm under his relentless, overbearing stalker’s game of seduction, confirms how much power he has. The goal isn’t just to abuse her. It’s to rattle her just when she should feel most confident, to transform her instincts for survival into self-destructive incompetence.
During a pouring rainstorm, for example, India is getting ready to go to school. She reaches for her umbrella. “Better take your umbrella,” he says before she can pull it off the wrack. She decides that if Charlie suggested she take the umbrella that she won’t take the umbrella. She goes outside and gets so drenched she has to go back home. Charlie is in India’s space so relentlessly, he’s not just a stalker and a seducer. He’s the personification of sexual abuse she’s internalized in her own mind.
Soon India, like all abused children, begins to “identify with the aggressor.” Whether or not India is a violent sociopath at heart, she’s angry and resentful at her mother. After Charlie kills an older woman to cover up his tracks, she doesn’t expose him. Hitchcock’s Charlotte Newton tries to expose her uncle Charlie immediately. Once Charlotte realizes her uncle is a serial killer, she’s terrified of him, but certainly not attracted to him. With India, it’s different. Charlie empowers her even as he seduces and abuses her.
Early in the film, we see her being harassed by some bullies in an art class. She ignores them, but we can see that her body language indicates paralysis, not unconcern. Later, she sharpens a pencil and stabs the same bully in his hand, drawing blood, allowing her to break out of the introverted rage that’s imprisoned her. Whip Taylor, a “nice guy” who had earlier stood up for India, expects sex as a reward. She halfway agrees then pulls back. He tries to rape her. Charlie, who is predictably following India, saves her. He ties Whip up, and lets her kick him in the head. When Whip breaks loose, he tries to rape her again. Charlie murders him. My daddy can beat your daddy up. He can also break your neck.
Later, we see India in the shower masturbating to the memory of Charlie killing Whip. This is probably the moment that people who hate Stoker will decide to walk out. If you see the violence as realistic, you’ll probably walk out too. India’s lack of affect at what she witnesses would, in reality, mean she’s got post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s possible, but it makes her character almost beside the point. It would render her completely passive just as the story is building to its climax. On the other hand, if you see the violence as the warped fantasy of an abused girl, it all makes sense. The imagery becomes richly expressive, a hyperrealistic look into the mind of a closed-off 18-year-old.
What’s real and what’s fantasy is best left to the viewer’s judgment. After India, stabs the bully in the hand, and draws blood, she brings the pencil home and starts to sharpen it. It’s certainly possible that a high school girl can stab a bully with a sharpened pencil, and even draw blood, but it’s not terribly realistic just how much blood she draws, and how bright, and deep red it stays after she brings it back to her bedroom. Indeed, there’s so much blood in the final half-hour of Stoker that Wasikowska’s character from Only Lovers Left Alive, should think about migrating films.
India’s last act of violence is so gratuitous it seems almost surreal. Yet somehow, it works. India may not be among the undead, but she’s a vampire nonetheless. Small, very pretty young women have rarely been as terrifying as this. Nobody in his right mind would be afraid of someone like India Stoker, but, as Park Chan-wook suggests, if she had the power to genuinely express what’s inside of her, we should be. She’s killed her creepy uncle, but, in the end, he’s taken her over. She’s become her uncle.
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