STOKER. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney, and Jacki Weaver. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Rated MA15+. Restricted (Strong violence, sexual references and sexualised violence). 99 min.
This British-American psycho-drama is a dark thriller that has nothing to do with the author of “Dracula”, Bram Stoker, but a lot to do with “Shadow of a Doubt”, the 1943 psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The movie shares with them both an approaching sense of dread, and exposure to violence and death.
When Richard (Dermot Mulroney), the father of India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), dies in an apparent car accident, Indie is left with an emotionally unstable mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who has always resented her husband’s affection for his daughter. Richard’s brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), is at the funeral and moves in with Evelyn and Indie because “it is important” to him. Evelyn is delighted and Indie is resentful. Evelyn responds warmly to Charlie’s affection, but Indie rebuffs her uncle’s initial attempts to get close to her. The movie focuses on the disturbances of all three, mother, daughter and her uncle – who, as Indie says “don’t need to be friends, we’re family”.
Indie’s great aunt, Gwendolyn (Jackie Weaver) arrives for an unexpected visit and threatens to reveal Charlie’s past. Shortly afterwards, she is strangled. Richard was an inmate in a psychiatric institution, and the genes of his family begin to show. When Indie shares a violent incident with Charlie, she becomes excited sexually by thoughts of violence, and Charlie and Indie become intimate, infuriating Evelyn. Charlie later assaults Evelyn and calls Indie to watch his attack - and Indie comes to Evelyn’s aid. The end of the movie leaves no doubt that there is something terribly wrong in the genes of this particular family. This is a genuinely creepy film that fits well and truly into the horror genre. It builds up a solid dose of dread, is full of dark characters with mysterious pasts, and unfortunately sexualises its violence. Aggression is linked very explicitly with sexual scenes, and the result of this combination is explosive and a warning sign to all.
At one level, the film is a Gothic tale about an adolescent coming-of-age “waiting to be rescued”, but at a deeper level it is about the sexual repression of a girl dominated by her mother, the sexual frustrations of the mother, and the deviant sexuality of a homicidal uncle. Though Evelyn does all she can to inhibit her daughter, Indie’s emotions come boiling to the surface when Charlie does all he can to release them.
Matthew Goode is extraordinary as the charismatic, sexual predator, Charlie, and Nicole Kidman gives an impressive performance as the cool and controlling Evelyn, who tries desperately to keep her daughter in check and Charlie away from her. Mia Washikowska gives a startlingly effective performance as a young woman, struggling against base desires, who can no longer bear to be treated as a child. Indie believes that “to become an adult is to become free”, and there is more than a hint of split-personality behind what she feels compelled to do.
The film shares with Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” a character by the name of Uncle Charlie, and descends more intentionally than Hitchcock into the twisted realm of nightmare material. The film achieves its impact by sinking its violence obviously into the depravity of its characters, and its bursts of violence are chilling. The direction of the movie by Park Chan-wook is precise and controlled. His very deliberate use of imagery is a vivid mix of fantasy and menace. Making forceful use of stillness and silence, the film delivers its thrills and shocks by showing evil emerging in people who are deeply disturbed.
This is not a moral movie in any way. It deals with diabolically sinister events, sexualises violence at great risk, and trades plot at times for style. Technically, it is an impressively made film in the horror genre, but leaves you uncertain about how you are going to process its well-staged ghoulish moments.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Twentieth Century Fox.
Out August 29th 2013.