US, UK / 99 minutes / color / Indian Paintbrush, Scott Free, Fox Searchlight Dir: Park Chan-wook Pr: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Michael Costigan Scr: Wentworth Miller Cine: Chung-hoon Chung Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Phyllis Somerville, Nicole Kidman, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Brown.
It’s a tradition that every year on her birthday India Stoker (Wasikowska) should seek a hidden box containing her new pair of shoes. Today, on her 18th birthday, she finds the box but it contains not the shoes but a key. She barely has time to register this before the news arrives of her father’s horrific death in a car accident.
What’s a girl supposed to do when a date goes horribly wrong . . .?
At the funeral India meets for the first time her Uncle Charlie (Goode), her father’s younger brother, of whose existence she’s been ignorant; she’s informed that he has spent many years traveling the world. Possessed of a sort of poisonous glamour, he announces that he plans to stay awhile, a situation that India resents but her mother Evelyn (Kidman) seems very much to welcome; at first we wonder if Charlie is really Evelyn’s lover. The housekeeper, Mrs. McGarrick (Somerville), clearly objects strongly to Charlie’s presence. She abruptly vanishes; when India later discovers her corpse nestled into the basement icebox, the girl does nothing. A few days later India’s Great Aunt Gwendolyn “Gin” (Weaver) appears for a brief visit and is plainly horrified by Charlie’s presence; we see him track her to the motel where she’s staying and ruthlessly murder her.
India is profoundly disturbed by what seems the growing intimacy between her mother and her uncle. One night she goes to the local biker bar and, encountering in its parking lot the boy who’s stood up for her in high school, Whip Taylor (Ehrenreich), suggests the two go for a moonlit walk together. They kiss but, when he starts in on heavier petting, she rebuffs him. Enraged, he attempts to take her by force . . . at which point Uncle Charlie appears and expertly breaks the boy’s neck with his belt. Charlie and India together bury Whip’s body; she reacts to the experience in a profoundly sexual way, masturbating frenziedly as she showers herself clean of mud afterwards.
It’s now becoming clear to us why her father Richard (Mulroney) so often took her on hunting trips, what he meant when he said of their killing animals that sometimes you need to do a bad thing to stop yourself doing a worse thing. Richard recalled only too well how the eight-year-old Charlie callously murdered their two-year-old younger brother Jonathan; far from spending the past twenty years globetrotting, Charlie has been confined to a psychiatric facility, the Crawford Institute . . .
There’s quite plainly a fair amount of homaging going on to Alfred Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), in which another sociopathic Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) comes home to visit, and forms a strong bond with a seemingly innocent niece (Teresa Wright) who discovers they have more in common than she’d like. Performances are uniformly good, although Wasikowska intermittently has difficulty persuading us she’s a teenager. This was the first filmed screenplay by Miller, who has had a successful acting career; it’s remarkably assured for a debut. Stoker was also the first English-language movie by South Korean director Park, who made his name with internationally successful outings such as The VENGEANCE TRILOGY. Outgunning even the screenplay and direction, however, is Chung’s astonishing cinematography; even those who might dislike the movie on other grounds must surely admit to its visual beauty.
Stoker was filmed in a mere 40 days in September/October 2011. Between the completion of filming and the movie’s release in Spring 2013, one of its producers, Tony Scott, killed himself by jumping from Los Angeles’s Vincent Thomas Bridge.
I’ve encountered before the plot device of the birthday treasure hunt for the new year’s shoes, but cannot remember where. If and when I do, I’ll update this entry; if you know the reference, please do feel free to add a comment!
On Amazon.com: Stoker