The coming-of-age drama is a popular staple of both cinema and literature, most likely because the experience of growing up is universal and it speaks to a deep need we have to understand who we are and how we should live our lives. One of the most essential traits in this narrative is vulnerability, and conveying this through a character is often tougher then you might think; because a character’s vulnerabilities so often are used to define them rather then strengthen them. Moments of uncertainty and weakness are the ideal times for character growth, and the provocative family drama that plays out in the refreshingly vampire-free Stoker uses them in such a low key manner that you’re never quite sure what the source of that weakness is until it all comes together in the end.
While the protagonist of Chan-Wook Park’s elegantly twisted new thriller is uncertain about who she is, she is also very good at hiding this under a guise of normalcy. She is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and you would forgive her for being a little emotionally detached given that her father Richard was recently killed in an unexpected car accident, on her 18th birthday no less. Her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is soothing her widow’s grief with a steady supply of red wine, and all her attempts at getting India out of her seemingly sullen shell are unsuccessful.
However, the arrival of her never before seen Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) under the pretense of helping Evie through her emotional turmoil has a strange effect on India’s life. At first she resents Charlie’s claim that he simply want to be friends with her, but as he continues to pursue her with a strange mix of paternal care and mentoring advice, India gradually finds herself attracted to him for reasons that even she doesn’t understand.
Stoker thrives the way it does by telling the story not through its actor’s dialogue, but with their performances and interactions with the environment around them. From the opening images of blowing grass and crimson flowers, to unusual framing shots that place characters in the same scene without sharing the physical space, the film achieves a haunting sense of other world-ness that highlights a number it’s themes. It is helped along by the light but mesmerizing score of Clint Mansell (Requiem For a Dream) which adds an aura of dark whimsey to to the otherwise sinister tone of the events.
Each actor’s performances carries an undercurrent of mystery, which escalates from a question of intentions to a wider notion of just who they really are. Mia Wasikowska keeps India’s expressions neutral throughout the film, but allows us to see her curiosity about her Uncle and how it motivates her actions. She’s introverted, yet doesn’t appear shy and rather seems to resent the attention of people, so her attraction to Charlie becomes all the more telling. This attraction is best conveyed during a piano duet between them that starts as a battle of wills and quickly twists into a type of lust that is not all it appears on the surface. This incident comes full circle during a shower scene that at first seems to be showcasing a genuine moment of weakness, until it becomes something else entirely.
Initially, Evelyn’s infatuation with Charlie seems like her sole defining characteristic, making her a deserved source of scorn for India. But while Evelyn Stoker’s treatment of her daughter appears on the surface to be neglectful, Nicole Kidman slowly deepens our understanding of their relationship until we understand the truth. By wearing a tacked on smile of gaiety, and expressing uncertainty over why her daughter was so close to her father, it grows clearer that she has been hiding emotions that could not be expressed when her late husband was alive.
As the the enigmatic Uncle Charlie, Matthew Goode is tasked with portraying a man who can blend into fine company with his sophistication and worldly charm, yet is distinctly off in a way that only India takes notice of. His name an homage to the similarly mysterious uncle from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie makes no secret of his pursuit of India, but does so in a way that intrigues her instead of repulsing her. Goode is versatile enough to summon a smile that is charming to Evie, and then display an almost child-like care for India that turns his obsession with her into something more tender. His true characterization of Charlie is not in what he says to her, but how he seems to understand her better then anyone, and this is made especially notable in the scenes they share which play out entirely without dialogue.
It’s this last thing that characterizes Stoker’s subtlety, and demonstrates how a simple story can be much more provocative if the pieces to it are alluded to rather then made explicit. The attraction India has to Charlie as well as her apparent jealousy of her mother lends the film a palpable theme of sexual tension, only for it to be blurred and turned on it’s head as we realize that not all seductions are lustful. Likewise, numerous hints about India’s background feel as though they are leading towards a damaging reveal, only for it to become apparent that the truth is far more meaningful to India’s character and our interpretation of her.
Stoker is a film about dangerous secrets, about the reasons they are kept and the consequences for knowing the truth; and yet the the answers are not as important as what each means to the person who discovers them. While any film could use violence to illustrate these, few films do in a way which feels as integral to the characters as to the audience. Compared with the violence of his previous revenge thriller Oldboy, Park uses it sparingly but effectively, all the more to unnerve us when it breaks through the docile surface of the family. In keeping with this theme, Charlie may be family, but India learns though the course of the film that not all family is related by blood. Some are related by what’s in the blood.