Stokerby Kavish Chetty / 14.05.2013
Do you remember Wentworth Miller? If not, summon to mind the image of a rectangular concrete slab left outside under turbulent meteorological conditions for two years: the resultant erosion which has eaten deep into the flesh of the concrete might mark out things ocular, nasal and buccal (which is to say, a rough kind of mouth). Even factoring in mild imaginative preferences from person to person, you’ve probably come up with a close enough approximation of Wentworth Miller’s face. In fact, so striking was the likeness of his general physiognomy to a weathered concrete slab, that the producers of Prison Break originally cast him as a cameo tombstone in episode twelve of the HBO get-out-of-jail drama. It was an odd matter of colliding circumstances which led to his major role as Michael Scofield, but that’s an anecdote we shall delay until his next film. Now, having mastered the not insubstantial challenge of playing a cinder block with agitations to quit prison, Miller has taken to writing the kinds of scripts which less accomplished actors usually do: wildly circular, indexical, posturing. Stoker – a gorgeously shot and emotionally undernourished horror – is the product of Miller’s virgin writing skills and the directorial flair of Park Chan-wook, most renowned for Korean mystery-thriller Oldboy (2003).
Stoker takes place in a strange universe of anachronism – the kind adored by postmodernists/hipsters, where past and present integrate into a unified whole of stylish signifiers chaotically brushed up against each other in a time out of joint: there’s the 1950s aesthetic, with its malted milkshakes and neon-diners; its cream-sleeved varsity jackets and vintage ray-bans; its gangly, horny adolescents caught on the verge of sexual awakening. But at the same time, the central mansion of the film is a Gothic sprawl; mobile phones are present; and one of the characters drives a ‘90s-era Jaguar XJS convertible, supersleek, arched for long drives through Acadian forests. I mean to suggest by all this a film of staggering stylishness. Chan-wook is deliberate – even to the point of a paining consciousness – in his angles and composition. Each individual scene is sumptuously appointed, drawing its vitality from something dark and gorgeous. Comparisons to a Hitchcock, even revivalist terms like “neo-Hitchcock”, would be difficult to resist, and the film, with its endless play of references, does much to encourage this.
The film opens with India Stoker (played masterfully by Mia Wasikowska) standing at the edge of a highway, musing as follows: “Just as a flower doesn’t choose its colour, we don’t choose what we are going to be”. There is an explicit invocation here of fate, free will – even nihilism and the absence of moral responsibility – but these themes are repressed throughout much of the later film. India has just turned eighteen, and is a social outsider (she, in fact, resembles Wednesday from the Addams Family, more than anything else). Her father has mysteriously died, and a long-lost uncle, whom she’s never met before and never knew existed, has come to stay with her, and her mother, in their labyrinthine Gothic estate. Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) is young, “charming”, frankly creepy, and is an immediate hit with India’s bereft mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman with leonine red hair, aging exquisitely and artificially thanks to the interventions of plastic surgery). A slow, tortuous triangle of sexuality begins to emerge – one could only lust at the erotic possibilities of Kidman and Wasikowska, the splendour of their mutual entanglement in a carnal mesh. This “triangle” is made more intense by the fact that India is clearly virginal, but also at the thresholds of a coming of age drama, a ritual awakening to womanhood in which blood and orgasm will organise the passage.
The main piston of the narrative is Charlie’s sociopathic enigma – who is this curious world-traveler? and why, within mere days, is he laying down India’s mother, and stalking India obsessively in the house and at school? Answers to these questions are of the predictable sort and take shape over a slow build of largely uninteresting tension. There is clearly something ulterior about all of Charlie’s unsolicited affections, but this incredibly unoriginal story doesn’t do much to obscure these motives, or make them enticing to the viewer. Instead, any attractions this film has is left to its cinematography and visual idiosyncrasy: macabre tonal compositions, dreamy sequences, morbid couplings of sexuality and violence, and a masturbation scene that is oddly arousing (or perhaps not all that oddly). The film tries to make something vaguely preternatural about India: an acute sensitivity to sensory data, sounds and so forth. But any latent curiosities of this kind are for the most part so obscure, unless when serving hefty thematic purposes, as to vanish under the intrusion of more plausible explanations. The attempt to connect female sexuality with something monstrous or terrifying, untameable and voracious – by now archetypal masculine anxieties best explored elsewhere, like von Trier’s Antichrist – is impoverished by a truly forgettable script, with its forgettable dialogue and too-easily-remembered (endless borrowing of other films) plot twists.
Stoker ends up being too Tim Burton in a warped genre where something more mature might have served better. It’s almost classically idiotic, with a cast of credulous characters. Wasikowska can be praised for her corpse-like charms, perhaps, but Goode’s sociopathic acting is so hammed-up and old-school as to be unpardonable. It might be worth watching this for the dread beauty of Chan-wook’s direction, but as is now a well-populated province in modern cinema, this one enters the realm of the beautiful but empty.