“I get a rush/When I see blood and dead bodies on the floor/Casualties of war…
–Eric B. & Rakim, “Casualties of War,” 1992
Young India Stoker is indeed at war with a most dangerous enemy…her own psyche. And there will be casualties.
India is intelligent and introverted, on the cusp of womanhood, but also a friendless, reclusive outcast with a long brunette curtain parted right down the middle that obscures her dispassionate mien like a shroud. She is hypersensitive to sound, despises being touched, and is harassed at school; think Carrie White, Wednesday Addams, and Aileen Wuornos tossed into a blender. Worse, she is now alone in the world following the sudden loss of her beloved father, who perished in a mysterious car accident on her eighteenth birthday.
This increases an already-deep rift between India and her aloof mother, Evie, an aging semi-alcoholic who doesn’t appear overly distressed at her husband’s passing, something that is not lost on her daughter. During the funeral, India becomes aware of a strange figure watching the proceedings from a distance. Later at the wake, the man is revealed as her Uncle Charlie, whom she never even knew existed. Urbane and world-traveled, Charlie will be staying at the Stokers’ spacious castle-like house – which is now much more a fortress – and that immediately sparks India’s distrust. Evie, though, is promptly smitten by this handsome stranger, seeking him as a remedy of sorts for her sexual frustration borne by her eroding marriage. Never mind that Charlie’s sadistic mind games will threaten to snap completely the frayed mother-daughter bond, or that people start to go missing after his arrival; Evie is so caught up in this man who she discovers can cook in more ways than one.
However, it’s definitely not Evie whom Charlie has in his crosshairs from the second he enters the picture.
In his English film debut, South Korean director Park Chan-wook – best known on these shores, of course, for violent cult favorites Oldboy and Thirst – gives us a vampire movie in which the vampire has no fangs yet still seeks to prey on young blood. (Indeed, the title blatantly evokes the author of Dracula.) Park’s directing is patient and methodical, which is perfect for a horror film in which the horror present is not hiding in the closet or down in the basement. Instead, it’s like carbon monoxide; you can’t see or smell it but you know it’s there.
Stoker compensates for occasional scripting head-scratchers by being damn near flawless in everything else, from the incredible opening sequence in which the credits “interact” with India’s search for her 18th-birthday present, to the closing credits that scroll downward not unlike another masterful psychological thriller, Seven. The cinematography by regular Park collaborator Chung-hoon Chung makes practically every shot an image ready for framing, and his imagery gets a boost from a soundtrack that is almost a character in itself: the innocuous cracking of hardboiled-egg shells on a tabletop is a loud, crunching rumble, and the winding depths of a basement become a dungeon embellished by the crackling of cheap fluorescent lighting and a coffin-like toploading freezer. The editing is a double-edged sword; while it was responsible for 20 minutes of footage being sheared from the final print – it will be an injustice if we do not get a director’s cut on DVD – there are several segments of spine-tingling intercutting between multiple scenes that are sewn together seamlessly while never taking you out of the moment.
Clint Mansell provides a sublime score that ranges from a light, uptempo number during the aforementioned gift hunt, to slow foreboding strains that are eerily reminiscent of John Barry’s haunting yet overlooked soundtrack to 1979’s The Black Hole, especially during one scene in which a crowning moment for India is potentially laced with something ominous. When one character is suddenly in serious danger, a cadence of snare drums pops up amidst the crescendo of urgent strings.
Of course, the actors are as equally responsible for maintaining Park’s sense of dread, and the three leads come up aces. And to think that they were all replacements (Colin Firth, Jodie Foster and Carey Mulligan were originally attached to the project). Stoker is a deliberately slow, mind-wracking burn that will not suit anyone expecting instant gratification, and the actors know it. They take their sweet time in long takes and don‘t rush anything, like a three-way human chess match in which the Stoker house is the playboard. Evie is probably the most black-and-white, and while Nicole Kidman doesn’t have very much to do as a whole, she depicts Evie’s flippancy to the point that it borders on sickening; when the Stokers’ longtime housekeeper, Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) disappears, Evie’s immediate concern is who will make dinner before Charlie volunteers. She doesn’t think twice about endearing herself to the estranged brother of her late husband (Dermot Mulroney, in flashbacks) before the dirt on his grave has even settled. While Evie may be a sadsack figure, she is certainly not above twisting the knife into her grieving daughter by way of remarks such as “It’s what your father would’ve wanted” when she futilely tries to get India to leave the house and go on an outing with her. Matthew Goode is perfectly oily and seductive as Uncle Charlie, with his protuberant marble-like blue eyes boring holes into anything they get in their sights. He never seems to blink and is always calm and collected, as a master manipulator normally is when he knows he’s in complete control.
Make no mistake, however; this is Mia Wasikowska’s picture first and foremost. After a quiet 2012 in which she whiffed with Albert Nobbs and Lawless, she returns in full force with Stoker, one reason being she’s back in the lead where she belongs. Plus, after having made her name in virtuous roles such as Alice and Jane Eyre, she finally ventures into darker territory as India, a part that suits her to a T because Wentworth Miller’s script is peppered with silent episodes that enable Wasikowska to showcase her rare gift of letting her eyes do the talking while allowing her to maintain her trademark onscreen subtlety that will continue to either enthrall or frustrate audiences. Her palpable chemistry with Goode is not to be missed; an erotically-charged piano duet between India and Charlie nearly immolates the screen. The same can be said for a mesmerizing shower scene that is the most memorable since Psycho, in which India experiences her sexual awakening that is possibly more threatening than any knife-wielding maniac. And since India is the backbone of the film, her depiction is crucial because, with her perpetual distrusting frown and antisocial demeanor, she could’ve easily been dismissed as little more than a ’90s Goth-girl woe-is-me caricature in lesser hands. Not to worry; this film and its star are too intelligent for that.