“You know I’ve often wondered why it is we have children, and the conclusion I’ve come to is we want someone to get it right this time. But not me. Personally speaking, I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.”
So says Nicole Kidman as the unbalanced Evelyn Stoker in the opening minutes in the trailer. But she doesn’t really simply SAY anything in this movie. Her affected display of high camp is full of histrionics. If it’s possible to whisper loudly, Kidman accomplishes that feat numerous times in Stoker playing the role somewhere between overwrought and mannered. She speaks in a halting tone as if Every. Word. Is. Its. Own. Sentence. Her ridiculously over the top theatrics emphasize every declaration with an exaggerated stare or arched brow.
She‘s not alone. Kidman mourns her late husband for the duration of a funeral then immediately starts making goo-goo eyes at her brother-in-law who pops up out of thin air to stay with them. One would think in a mystery the antagonist would be ambiguous suggesting a hidden agenda. But Charlie is clearly a creep. His perverted smile is uneasy right from the start. Obsequious and insincere he exudes evil because he is evil. Mia Wasikowska is a talented young actress that usually conveys a depth beyond her 23 years. But there is no subtlety to her performance either. Here her sullen, depressed demeanor depicts a girl named Wednesday Addams…er uh I mean India Stoker. She’s particularly fond of wearing saddle shoes and dressing like someone from the early 20th century. I almost thought the film was set in that era as well, until one unnecessary line unequivocally dates the events in the modern day. Her father has died so that would account for the moodiness but her mental state goes way past that emotion to the extent where she exhibits hatred towards everyone. Do her male classmates tease her because she is mean or is she mean because they tease her? It’s never explained and the script is too shallow to even care.
One thing Stoker has going for it are the visuals. It’s technically dazzling with a true sense of style. But it’s over-stylized. Director Chan-wook Park shoots the hell out of scene to the point where the artifice become the story. Light and shadows move when India pushes a swinging overhead lamp, a close-up of a blister oozes pus when pierced with a pin, white flowers become red when splattered with blood, a girl with 16 pairs of shoes carefully surround her as she lays on a bed. At one juncture, Evelyn’s brushed hair morphs into the tall grass in a field where India and her father are hunting in flaskback. Is that last example a nice effect? Yes. Does it take the place of a coherent story? Not on your life. But the tricks are not merely visual. Chan-wook Park amps up the soundtrack to 11 to heighten the sound of a spider climbing up a girl’s skirt or the cracking shell of a hardboiled egg being rolled across a table. Scenes are self consciously arty that seem to imply a lot more than what is really going on. That’s kind of how the entire production unfolds at a lugubrious trudge. But peer beyond those luxurious velvet drapes and we’re left with the story equivalent of furniture from IKEA. That is to say it’s cheap and disposable.
Let’s not mince words. This screenplay is a rational thinker’s worst nightmare. Stoker marks the screenwriting debut of Wentworth Miller. Yes, the actor that was once the star of the television series Prison Break. India, Charlie & Evelyn – their motives are superficially justified up to a point, but no one behaves or reacts with any kind of meaning. Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker is a most confounding creature. Multiple people are killed at an alarming pace with minimal to no consequences. India is confronted with these deaths. Yet she inexplicably remains apathetic to the escalating murder rate around her. Personally I would’ve called the police if I discovered a dead body in my freezer, but hey that‘s just me. She meets a sweet boy who is the one lone classmate who shows her some respect. They tenderly make out. She violently bites his lip. Her anti-social behavior is perplexing. Then he incongruously tries to rape her. Huh?!
Many have gone so far as to say this is inspired by Hitchcock, but that is to completely disregard the director’s facility with wit, nuance and decorum. The script is pointless, classless and vulgar. Ok so those last two are the same thing, but I want to really stress that. This is about as similar to Hitchcock as Kim Kardashian is to Audrey Hepburn. If Shadow of a Doubt is the bon vivant that teaches English literature at the University level then Stoker is the drunk and disorderly younger brother (with a slavish devotion to designer labels) that didn’t finish high school. Need another example? Mia Wasikowska’s shower sequence comes to mind. No it’s not like the one in Psycho but it is memorable and not in a good way.