“Stoker”: So THAT’S How It Is In Their Family

“Stoker”: So THAT’S How It Is In Their Family

Just a couple of weeks after I wrote about movies that inaccurately get called “smart,” along comes a classic example of that species: Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, a colossally stupid movie that also happens to feature an ambiguously erotic passive-aggressive uncle-niece piano duet on a composition by Philip Glass.

Wentworth Miller’s screenplay made a 2010 list of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, and Miller should have quit while he was ahead. Chan-wook, a South Korean director who’s popular in his home country and has gained a cult following abroad for thrillers like Oldboy (2003), has delivered a visually beautiful film that never lets details like plot and character development get in the way of a good shot.

Mia Wasikowska, star of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, is making a lucrative career out of films that require her to look pretty and somber and not get in the way of the cinematography. Here, she plays India Stoker, a virginal (but not necessarily virtuous) 18-year-old in saddle shoes. India’s father (Dermot Mulroney) has just died in a car crash, and her sexily grieving mother (Nicole Kidman) takes comfort in the arms of a handsome young brother-in-law (Matthew Goode) who likes to stand around staring openly, and creepily, at India.

The three-way relationship recalls Lolita, except that’s a story with dramatic tension because Humbert has to hide his true intentions. Goode’s job here is just to stand around looking hot and sketchy until Chan-wook gets through his shot list to the point where Uncle Charlie gets to start taking action. Kidman is even worse off: she has to sit there blinking back tears and leaving the audience to guess what the hell she’s crying about, since she’s shamelessly shagging her houseguest and icily dismissing her daughter.

As for Wasikowska, her black-clad character recalls teen Winona Ryder characters from films including Beetlejuice, Heathers, and Edward Scissorhands, but Ryder always radiated intelligence. Wasikowska just looks confused and pouty, underplaying everything except her orgasms. (Why are female masturbation scenes in movies always shot in lengthy, breathlessly nude close-up set to surging strings, while male masturbation scenes are quick under-the-cover wanks for comic effect?)

There are some bravura visual sequences here, some of which might have been powerful if the characters weren’t just props in them. As an example, consider the scene where India discovers a cache of revealing letters. First, she comes across a locked drawer. She gives up on it for a moment, until she moves her hand to the ribbon around her neck as it occurs to her that hey! Maybe that mysterious key she was ceremoniously presented with earlier in the film will come in handy here! We’re already burying our heads in our popcorn as she unlocks the drawer, discovers the letters, and reads through them, showily dropping them into a pile on the desk for the purposes of dramatic montage.

India collects the letters and re-seals the envelopes (we’re not shown that part, because it wouldn’t be visually stunning), then carries them up a staircase, carelessly dropping some despite the fact that the pile isn’t that big and this is scandalously forbidden correspondence. She goes back to collect the letters she dropped, only then noticing a glaring detail that she somehow has completely ignored: the return address on each letter. To check all the return addresses, she goes through the pile and throws each letter down the stairs in a manner that makes no sense at all unless she knows that she’s standing underneath a camera crew that’s waiting for a trailer-worthy shot of her surrounded by dozens of envelopes. The whole sequence unfolds precisely and elegantly, but at no point is there ever any risk of us mistaking the character for an actual human being with actual thoughts in her head.

That piano duet I mentioned above is another example of this film’s inattention to motive and character. For the film to work, we need to be paying attention to the relationship between the characters when the uncle suddenly appears at the piano next to his moody niece. If the music were, say, a Beethoven chestnut, we might believe that both characters knew it. No, it’s a newly-composed and technically challenging Philip Glass piece, so we’re taken completely out of the moment by wondering when the listless teenager and the threatening uncle found time to transcribe Glassworks together.

Because there’s no one in Stoker believable enough for us to care about, there’s no suspense, no horror, just a gifted director spinning his wheels.

Jay Gabler