A Review of Stoker, Directed by Park Chan-wook
“Shadow of a Doubt” seems a particularly American film, although it is part of a tradition that starts with Dante, culminates with Dostoevsky (whom Hitchcock has called a “master”) and includes in it as well the best writings of Henry James and Graham Greene. … But the clearest parallel lies with that authentically American Puritan view of man and his world as flawed, weak and susceptible to corruption and madness. … It stands opposed to a heady idealism and to the cheery healthy-mindedness offered by the Transcendentalists and Radical Liberals. … [Hitchcock’s] dark view of man more closely resembles the New England Puritan view.—Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, p. 134
The key to Stoker—the cinematic, moody new film from Park Chan-wook that owes a heavy debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943)—is in the opening voiceover from India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and niece of Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode).
“We are not responsible for what we have come to be,” we hear India say in the film’s opening moments. “And to be an adult is to be free.”
But free to be what kind of person? And to do what with our lives? What actions have led India toward adulthood, and how are we to interpret the film’s ideas about what freedom means? And just how important to the filmmaker are the ideas behind Stoker, which was written by Wentworth Miller, an actor best known for his role on the Fox TV series Prison Break?
The answers to those specific questions are elusive, which makes Stoker a frustrating experience for moviegoers who either like a clear message from their stories, or who consider the lack of answer to every question a flaw on the part of the movie’s creative team. Director Park Chan-wook (making his English-language film debut), for his part, is quite upfront about the film’s slippery qualities. “It wasn’t a script that tried to explain everything,” Park says of Miller’s story, which “left many things as questions, so it leads the audience to find answers for themselves.”
Stoker owes a heavy debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Park, a South Korean best known in America for writing and directing Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005), and Thirst (2009), has cast Australians Kidman and Wasikowska as mother and daughter, and Brit Goode as a thrown-together American family unit, making Stoker a melting pot of cinematic talent. The only American actor to play a family member is Dermot Mulroney as Richard, India’s father.
The film opens in the aftermath of Richard’s death, whose sudden demise has clearly affected India. (One character whispers that Richard, an architect by trade, “would have struggled with God’s great design” that led to his death, but the film also described Richard’s demise as “a cruel twist of fate.”) “Who’s going to look after her now?” wonders one character about India, who “was so close to her father.”
That caretaker won’t be India’s mother. The film quickly establishes that Evelyn and India have an icy relationship. So into the void left by Richard’s death steps his long-lost brother Charlie. From the moment of his arrival, India suspects something isn’t quite right with her uncle. Charlie seems more familiar than he should be with the recently widowed Evelyn, and he talks to India as if he knows her much better than she knows him. What gives?
Charlie, India learns, has kept in touch with the family’s housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville), but the housekeeper appears to fear Charlie. So, too, does Charlie’s aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), whose warnings about India’s uncle fight against the young woman’s curiosity and attraction to him. Charlie exploits India’s conflicting emotions, drawing her into his world. As the film’s erotic undercurrents become stronger and more unsettling, Stoker piles up images that are hard to shake: a spider crawling up India’s leg; a hard, accusatory stare and comment from Evelyn toward India; a blood-stained face.
But what does it all mean? Like Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, a masterful film that suggests much of the same undercurrent as Stoker but without the explicit sexuality and murderous violence, Park’s film digs below the surface of one American family’s carefully appointed home and uncovers a suppressed darkness—a darkness that lurks within all of us who struggle with sin (Genesis 4:7).
The film’s production notes speak to the director’s interest in religious ideas. Stoker co-producer Wonjo Jeong says, “Director Park’s films are very reflective. They deal with right and wrong, and where the line lies between them. His characters are torn between their choices. And every choice has consequences. He subverts the conventions of narrative, and in doing so, draws us into the questions about social class, ethics, morality and religion.” Park himself says of the key characters in Stoker, “Allegorically, I saw Uncle Charlie as John the Baptist. He is a mentor figure who turns up to complete India.”
Like Hitchcock’s Shadow, Stoker is thematically disturbing. Yet we know as we watch that we’re in the hands of an accomplished visual stylist who leans on images over dialogue to reveal the dynamic at play from scene to scene.
It will be fascinating to see if Park uses his future English-language films to further develop the ideas that are at the root of Stoker. Peter tells us to “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). Is it too much to hope that Park might make a film showing us what human freedom looks like once we are accepted by God, rather than show us again the outcome of acting according to our sinful nature?
Read another Schaeffer’s Ghost perspective on Stoker from Kendrick Kuo.