Review: Stoker (2013)

During the Renaissance, an orgasm was known as a little death. I have no idea whether Wentworth Miller was aware of this while writing the screenplay for Stoker, but the film shares the euphemism’s understanding of the affinities between sex and death.

Sex and death are also analogous in Bram Stoker’s Dracula—the title of Miller’s film obviously evoking the author of that famous Gothic novel. The intertextual title warns us straightaway what kind of film to expect—Gothic horror—but there are other influences at work on the film. For example, the allusions to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which also featured a possibly sinister Uncle Charlie, encourage the viewer to distrust Matthew Goode’s Charles Stoker, while his creepy tendency to stare intently without blinking recalls Hannibal Lector.

After the sudden death of her father, India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) uncle Charles, newly returned from his world travels, moves in with her and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). India begins to wonder where Uncle Charles has been all these years, while the audience is unsure of what’s more unsettling: Evelyn’s obvious flirtations with her dead husband’s brother, or Uncle Charles’ peculiar interest in his niece. Like any good Gothic story, dark secrets and forbidden desires are hinted at before they are slowly uncovered.

When the film connects India’s sexual awakening with a brutal murder during a climactic moment, I was genuinely disturbed. The South Korean director Park Chan-wook directed Miller’s screenplay, and if you have seen Park’s Oldboy (2003) or Thirst (2009), you will probably recognize why he might have been drawn to the project. While Stoker is not as graphically violent as Park’s revenge films, it still disturbs taboos and deeply unsettles.

Park seems to be drawn to films about cruel fate or fated cruelty. Oldboy moves along with the relentless, wrenching inevitability of a Greek tragedy. The vampirism in Thirst is a kind of disease. Stoker confronts the dark regions of human nature. Is a killer driven to kill as naturally as a flower is red? India’s initial voice-over narration would seem to suggest so, but when we arrive at the end of the film, that statement is called into question—the kind of question about human depravity and free will more typical of Reformation Calvinist theology than the contemporary big screen, but the kind you still sometimes ponder after reading the news on a grey afternoon.

8 out of 10

Stoker (USA/UK, 2013)

Directed by Park Chan-wook; written by Wentworth Miller; starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman.