The meaning of the word "stoker" is twofold, the first being a fireplace poker and the second being an occupation that entails stoking coals. Either way, the meaning applies rather nicely to India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), the anti-heroine in Park Chan-wook's Stoker. Best known for the Korean thriller, Oldboy (which Spike Lee is expected to remake), Stoker marks Chan-wook's English language debut. However, just because the renowned filmmaker has transitioned to American cinema doesn't mean he's shied away from a controversial subject matter. With Stoker, the term "familial bond" becomes rather broad after India's father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), gets in a fatal car accident on the day of her eighteenth birthday.
At Richard's funeral, India is distracted by the appearance of a mysterious stranger in the distance who she later learns is her uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), a man whose existence she was completely unaware of until meeting him at the wake. India's mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), seems far more welcoming of his presence than India, a naturally mistrusting and wary sort of girl. Already teetering on a nonexistent rapport with her mother, India is given even more reason to feel estranged from her as Evelyn grows closer to Charlie after inviting him to live with them for awhile.
With the only other person in the house being their housekeeper, Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville), India feels an immediate sense of isolation. Particularly close with her father—who often took her on hunting trips that further solidified their bond—India now has very little interaction in the aftermath of his death. Although Charlie tries quite diligently to get on her good side by offering her wine (which he notes was made the year she was born) and trying to pick her up everyday after school in his Jaguar, India is immune to his charms.
Chan-wook’s distinctive directorial style pairs well with Wentworth Miller’s tightly honed script. The screenplay is sparing in dialogue, allowing Chan-wook to truly capitalize on his knack for semiotics. From the very beginning of the film, we are bombarded with memorable, symbolic imagery. For example, the cake made for India’s birthday is lit with candles and then placed on the dining room table with a domed lid, suppressing and stoking, if you will, the smoke and flames. It is during the appearance of this image that her father’s death is made apparent. Another prime example of Chan-wook’s skill in creating iconic transitional scenes occurs as India brushes Evelyn’s hair and, as the camera zooms closer and closer in, the hair transforms into the reeds and grass that were present on India’s hunting trips as she would hide among the tall grass with her father—lying in wait for her prey.
India quickly discovers that something isn’t quite right with her uncle after she goes down to the freezer to get some ice cream and unearths the frozen corpse of Mrs. McGarrick. Unlike most people, however, India exhibits a response that is calm and accepting and, instead of telling her mother, she goes on as though nothing has happened. It isn’t tell Charlie’s aunt, Gwen (Jacki Weaver, who you may recognize from Silver Linings Playbook), comes to visit that India’s suspicions about Charlie are further aroused. Questioning Evelyn at the dinner table on whether or not she thinks it’s a good idea for Charlie to be staying with them, Evelyn infers that she is alluding to something entirely different than the fact that Charlie is a cold-blooded killer. As Gwen leaves to go to her hotel, she gives India her number and tells her to call. At the seedy motel where Gwen ends up staying, the TV in the background is turned to a channel that makes a deliberate reference to a weak link in the sibling rivalry of brothers. Later, when Gwen realizes her cell phone is missing, she goes to use a pay phone outside to call Evelyn and India. No one answers the call, but before she can get out of the phone booth Charlie appears, slowly unbuckling his belt (which used to belong to Richard) and using it to strangle her.
India’s latent aggressiveness also starts to come out when one of her frequent verbal tormentors at school prompts her to stab his hand with a pencil. She later sharpens it, blood-soaked and all, in yet another memorably shot scene. India’s neuroses are further aroused one night when she sees Evelyn and Charlie dancing salaciously with one another. Disgusted by the sight, India runs from her house and heads toward the local burger joint where she seeks Whip (Alden Ehrenreich), one of the few boys who has shown an interest in her at school. Leading him into the woods, India starts kissing him, ultimately biting his lip. Rather than get angry, Whip takes it as a sign that he can be as rough with her as he wants. This causes India to change her mind about wanting to lose her virginity to him, but by this time, he has already belligerently insisted that she can’t renege on her decision. Just as things start to get violent between them, Charlie appears to strangle him, yet again using Richard’s belt.
Watching her uncle take the life of another before her eyes has a profound effect on India—but not in the way you would expect. Rather than being saddened or repulsed by what happened, India masturbates to the image of Whip’s death as she showers off the dirt from the woods. And this is the true dividing point in the film, where nothing is as it seems any longer and you can’t be quite sure what’s going to happen next. Scenes we were shown initially take on new, more poignant meaning when we later see them again (especially one in which blood is strewn against some flower petals—though of course Tarantino already had this scene locked down in Django Unchained). Violent and envelope-pushing, the pairing of Chan-wook and Miller is one that will be difficult to top this year. What is more, Nicole Kidman has truly mastered the art of playing the psychologically damaged white woman who tends to drink a lot of red wine to numb herself. Think her role in The Others, The Hours and The Stepford Wives all jumbled into one package.