Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stoker (2013)

***NOTE: The following review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film.***

On the surface, "Stoker" (2013), the title may seem to allude to Bram Stoker or his most famous literary work, "Dracula", for it certainly tries to look like that, what with a gothic air about itself. The introduction of a young girl in her late teens, India, in her own whispering voiceover hints at special powers she seemingly possesses of hearing things others never hear and seeing things others never see. Are we watching a supernatural thriller?

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) lives in a huge, isolated mansion. It is that typical old-fashioned home with large open spaces surrounding it, far off store rooms with antique pieces, freezers tucked away in the dark basement, baroque interiors…the works! A cloud of desolation and tragedy looms about the household. It is India's 18th birthday and her father Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) has just died in a mysterious car accident. It is mysterious, for the housemaids gossip about it. They smell a conspiracy. Something doesn't seem right. There is tension. India shares a rather cold and distant relationship with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Some extremely clever match-cut editing shifts the narrative back and forth in time. India finds an empty box as her birthday present. It contains only a small key. What does it open? Big mystery to bait the audience. We are hooked!

Richard's younger brother and India's Uncle Charlie, a suave, smooth-talking, well-mannered gentleman suddenly shows up. He has been apparently travelling all over Europe, and neither India nor Evelyn have known much about his existence in the past. India is annoyed but Evelyn seems pleased and giving in to Charlie's charms. India is further annoyed that Evelyn seems to have stopped mourning her father early on. Characters look at each other with doubt-filled eyes, especially the unsociable recluse, India. She doesn't seem to trust anyone and feels lonely. Suddenly their head caretaker Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) disappears. A distant aunt of the Stoker brothers, Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) visits and rubs Evelyn the wrong way. She exchanges strange glances with Charlie, seems a little scared too. We are further hooked!

A very tangible sense of an enigma, or possibly a tragic, dark family secret that connects its members seems to be establishing its invisible presence about the house. A spider crawls up India's thigh. She sleeps among shoes of various sizes. Art, symbolism, clever editing, gorgeous cinematography, an unsettling tension and an atmosphere so clearly trying to put the point across that we are watching an Edgar Allan Poe-ish gothic fiction, abound.

But Park Chan-wook the acclaimed South Korean filmmaker who gave us his brand of unrestrained brutality with his Vengeance trilogy and other films, disappoints this time around with material that fails to cut any deeper than what is visible at its glossy surface. "Stoker" reeks of shameless pretense, an empty exercise in creating a foreboding aura but handing us curious audiences, a fizzled out firecracker, a stale piece of meat. Wentworth Miller's script is the major culprit here. It just doesn't have much to offer. But Park Chan-wook wanted to make the best of it anyway, so ended up adding oodles of style, incorporating his usual storytelling flair with ingenious framing of some of his scenes that make us admire his directorial skills.

Alas, all the aesthetics, ironically, also end up doing disservice to "Stoker", because then it stamps itself with the tag of an all style, no substance undertaking. Sure enough, the film is a B-grade mystery wrapped up with an A-grade packaging. Poor Park Chan-wook, getting a chance to direct his first English language film, but having to restrain himself, even in one particularly shocking scene in which India masturbates in the shower, to a scene of a gruesome killing she has witnessed! The effectiveness of the scene is lost, thanks to the lack of any established strong motivation for the act. Uncle Charlie and his niece, a lead pair with a secret, that is a very obvious reference to Hitchcock's film "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943) ends up making a mockery of the classic, instead of paying a tribute.

The now done-to-death cinematic cliché of a debonair gentleman with a violent streak has gotten old. Matthew Goode does well in the film's universe, but it doesn't get him anywhere. Absolutely no explanation is provided as to why India has to inherit that streak either. It is a contradiction, in fact, given her good relationship with her kindly dad in some flashbacks. Mia Wasikowska gives expressions that range from ominous to suspicious and wades through this pseudo-sinister world, acting weird. We follow her, but she leads us nowhere! And poor Nicole Kidman! Thanks to the inconsistency and an obvious discord between the script and the style she delivers a performance just as confused. The character traits on display by these otherwise fine actors don't bloom into anything substantial. In effect, practically the entire film is a red herring!

Halfway through the film one of the cats is let out of the bag. Our interest very slightly wanes. We foresee "Stoker" stepping into familiar territory. But we continue to keep the faith. In the last half hour, however, when we really look forward to some satisfying culmination after being visually pleased, we are handed a box which is emptier than the one India gets for her birthday. There is a key within, but one that opens an old, empty safe. Better to have left it alone. Too bad.

Score: 6/10


  1. Good review Aditya. A very strange movie, but also one that I enjoyed because it offered me a little something new to a genre that seems to have been dying-out as of late.

    1. Thank you Dan O. I was really liking this film until the final 35 minutes or so that kinda let me down.

      Thank you for the comment Dan O.

  2. Very well put thoughts, nice review. Beautiful pics and i agree with you. It had so much going on in the beginning with its visuals, style, editing, the metaphors etc.... but with no sense of what it wanted to be in the end, mixed up sense of character development and a lack of good writing, it disappointed. I rated it C+ (3/5).

    1. Ah...glad we see eye to eye on this Asif Khan!
      Thanks for the kind comment.