The title Stoker, left to stand alone for Korean director Park Chan-wook’s and screenwriter Wentworth Miller’s psychological thriller, could refer to any number of things, including those relative to vampires, marijuana, or tandem bicycling, depending on one’s disposition. The author of Dracula is indeed a relevant reference, but in Park’s film Stoker happens to be the surname of the family central to its narrative: mother, father, daughter, uncle. (Photo: Stoker Matthew Goode.)
Yet, Miller’s screenplay reaches for a deeper identity that goes beyond family names to actual lineage — in fact, to the very genetics of the family itself. Stoker implies that some traits, however dark, are part of our nature. That’s hardly an original notion, but in a movie that is such a perfectly lovely blend of styles, it may matter little.
Miller’s opaque literary dialogue in conjunction with Park’s strikingly poetic visuals result in a formidable presentation. Even so, while one is sure Stoker will satisfy many with its haughty ambivalence about any number of social taboos, others will find Park’s first English-language effort decidedly vapid. I’m among the "others."
I do love Stoker’s blend of confections, and don’t particularly mind its ambivalence; what actually bugs me about the film is that it’s not really about anything. I mean, not that it must be about something. It’s just that Stoker is one of those movies so weighted with anticipation, so draped in auspicious pedigree, that when you realize it’s only a fancy psychological thriller, clever and pretty but nothing more, one can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Having said that, I should add that this is more the fault of this critic’s anticipation than of the film’s failure to achieve its goals (which are simpler and fully realized) and should not weigh against it too heavily.
Stoker plot and ’narrative shortcomings’
In Stoker, India (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned eighteen, her father (Dermot Mulroney) has just died in a car accident, and her grieving mother (Nicole Kidman) has just introduced her to her uncle Charles, a man neither of them knew existed. As played by Matthew Goode of Watchmen and A Single Man, Uncle Charles is a mysterious figure, at once alluring and creepy. In fact, all of the Stoker characters are both alluring and creepy. Even India’s cold mother, as played by Nicole Kidman, seems capable of just about anything even though, if things are as the narrative suggests, she should be the one considered closest to "normal."
In any case, Uncle Charles’ unexpected arrival is the event that upsets an already unstable situation. Now, I should mention that Wentworth Miller’s screenplay indicates that Charles has suddenly arrived for the funeral, as opposed to his arrival having merely coincided with his brother’s demise. Either way, that’s problematic storytelling that fails to jive with the narrative as it unfolds later in the film. By then, however, some will have become so entranced by the captivating images, the visual and musical metaphors, and the sensual interludes alluding to Nabokov’s Lolita (as directed by Adrian Lyne in 1996), that the fact that much of Stoker does not add up may go unnoticed. Having said that, Stoker’s narrative shortcomings were not lost on me — and they bugged me as well.
Stoker influences: Shadow of a Doubt, Thornton Wilder, Bram Stoker
In addition to Lolita one will also find allusions to Alfred Hitchcock, specifically his 1943 suspense drama Shadow of a Doubt, starring Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright. Miller notes that the Hitchcock film is a point of departure for his own, but on closer inspection one can find deeper roots. The name of Goode’s character, Uncle Charles, is the same as Joseph Cotten’s (Uncle Charlie) in Shadow of a Doubt, which was written by the director’s wife, Alma Reville, Sally Benson and, Thornton Wilder.
Thornton Wilder was a particular favorite of Wentworth Miller, who studied English literature at Princeton University, where Wilder received his MA in 1926. Wilder, in fact, plainly remains an influential voice in Stoker — which suggests that literary lineages and alumni associations run deep.
As for the influence of Dracula author Bram Stoker, while there is nary a vampire in Stoker, the film is permeated by a Gothic horror feel. This atmosphere has as much to do with Park’s continuing exploration of forbidden sexual encounters (see Oldboy) as it does with Miller’s interest in the same topic.
Those themes are sometimes best explored in cinematic landscapes that are not quite real, with creatures that don’t really exist — and that’s another allusion to Bram Stoker. In fact, in Stoker, neither Miller nor Park is interested in the real world.
Park Chan-wook’s films generally exist in slightly surreal landscapes; though not exactly fantasy tales, they are particularly amenable to the unlikely. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a lot that’s “unlikely” in Stoker, set in a strange world filled with creatures that may look like ordinary humans but that are in fact inclined to perform bizarre actions on account of their genetics. That is the gist of Stoker: We are the result of our genetic inclinations, be they literary, cinematic, academic, or of the serial-killing variety.
So, perhaps Stoker is about something, after all.
Stoker (2013). Director: Park Chan-wook. Screenplay: Wentworth Miller (as Ted Foulke). Cast: Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Lucas Till, Phyllis Somerville, Alden Ehrenreich, Harmony Korine, Lauren E. Roman.
Stoker Matthew Goode photo: Fox Searchlight.