ON LOOKING WITHIN

Stoker (2013) — A Review

Spoiler alert: The following review is heavily laden with spoilers.

Storyline

18 year old India loses her father Richard in an accident on her 18th birthday. After his demise, Charlie, Richard’s brother, whose existence India didn’t know at all, comes and stays for a few days with them. Initially, Charlie’s motives seem to be directed at seducing her mother, but that is not the case. Why was India never told that she had an uncle? Why did he not come all these days, but only appear on his brother’s funeral—that is, on India’s 18th birthday? Who is he actually and what does he want? That is the gist of the story.

The film opens with a female narrator claiming that she has powers that help her to see and hear what others cannot; “this is me,” she says. She also adds that she is what she has come to be, and that was not her choosing—just as a flower does not choose its colour—and thus, she is not responsible for what she is. She ends the monologue with the words “to become an adult, is to become free.” The opening scene in any film is one of the key elements that would keep the audience glued to their seat, except those who have great patience. And this is director Park Chan-wook’s shrewd method to raise the curiosity in the audience. We are met with a lush green surrounding where India scampers about, climbing a tree and opening a box, which looked like a present. She comes home to only find that her father died in an accident. Various guests appear and she is introduced to Uncle Charlie, whose existence, neither she nor her mother knew. Her mother, however, it appears to India, seems to take a fancy to Charlie. India did not like it at all. What happens further is what the film is all about.

Characters

Charlie

Establishing characters is one of the great strengths of Chan-wook. He is very successful in portraying Charlie as a sly, unpredictable, mysterious person. Matthew Goode, with a characteristic smile, brings to life the character of Charlie efficiently. Indeed, in his very first encounter with India, he would say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” with a straight face to which, India would remind him that it’s his loss, too. He just walks away smiling. His handsome appearance is portrayed as something to which every girl would swoon to—there is even a scene in which India’s schoolmates in her bus would all shout at Charlie, who follows the bus, as “Hey handsome”, and so on. His determination is well portrayed with his straight faces, unknowable eyes, and a sort of permanent semi-smile that is always stuck in his face (when he kills people, especially the one at the park).

Ewelyn

Ewelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman), India’s mother is established as an easy going person, who falls for Charlie’s handsomeness in a moment, and whose relationship with her daughter is constantly in a strain. She would claim that India is always on one of her hunting trips with her father Richard, and that’s why she was not so close with India. And she contradicts herself often—in one sketch, she tells her that she doesn’t care about India and that she’d love to see India rot; but in the next sketch, she is begging Charlie to leave India alone, which shows caring. But India herself never sees Ewelyn as closest to her; she always suspects that her mother is aloof. Mia Wasikowska, as India, manages very well to impart her distrust, and even partial dislike (which might be because she wants to be independent), every time she looks at her mother. She suspects her mother is not at all sad for the death of her husband. Her image of her mother is beautifully captured in a scene where she is reading an encyclopedia of funerals and tells her mother with disdain the habits of ancient China and Victorian times—“a woman in Victorian times is supposed to mourn for two years,” and such.

India

India, the protagonist of the film, is a bold girl of 18, with an introverted, self-centered world, which is established by the scene at the art class, and all the unnecessary insults her classmates throw at her. She does not know what she wants; all that she knows is that she wants to live independently (her hating to be touched is one such cheesy bit about her characterization). One of the characteristics of India is to lift her right foot whenever she attains orgasm, which the director captures in two different instances—the first of which she attains is when she was imaging Charlie and playing piano; we are asserted about this only after we see the second time she has one. Mia manages to keep steadfast her cold sight, her distrust towards everyone. India, however, grows fond of Charlie who supposedly lived all his life for her. Her fancying him is substantiated by the scene where she lets tears roll off her cheeks whilst reading Charlie’s letters that she manages to find, knowing that there finally is someone who shares the same blood as she does, the same gifts that she’s bestowed with, and someone who understands her.

Music

In the title music, when India wanders into open, lush green spaces, the music elevates, even dictates, the mood of the viewer. However, this piece needed a better ending; the music must have seen a crescendo, because the next scene is an important one, before dying out. Instead it simply ceases away which was very dull. Mansell chose to use natural settings for much of the scenes such as bird chirping, TV playing in the background, and so on. He proves himself as a virtuoso pianist with the single scores played by India. Nonetheless, the music does not add value to the film in total; especially the background music is lacking in most parts—simply piano and beats do not make music; Clint Mansell fails to prove his genius.

Technical Aspects of the Movie

The most important aspect of motion picture—visual imagery—is simply brilliant. Long, green lawns, trees, bright colours, clandestine dark setting in the basement, are all tremendously appealing. Some of the deliberate patterns like the colourful tennis balls, stacking up 17 different sized shoes around her on bed and lying inside this shell, Ewelyn’s hair transforming into a forest, Charlie’s letters assuming an exquisite pattern, are all good treat to the eyes. We can see no major flaws in the direction of this film. Chan-wook’s specialty—blood spurting out, blood lust—is very much mitigated in this movie, but he nevertheless satiates himself with one such blood-spurting scene in the climax, which even changes the colour of innocent grass and flowers.

The whole sequence of Charlie’s attempt to kill aunty Gin (Jacki Weave) is explained to the viewer – in the background, the killing habits of hawks or eagles is being telecast on the TV and the TV voice dictates step by step about how Charlie will kill aunty Gin (“waits for perfect moment to strike”), and why did this happen in the first place (“sibling rivalry”). This sequence can be hailed as a masterpiece in film making.

One more monumental feat that Chan-wook was able to achieve is the portrayal of constant friction between the three major characters. There is an everlasting strain, and the characters can be likened to be interacting with each other, sitting at the vertices of an equilateral triangle. But, then, post the murder at the deserted park late at night, the sequences are jumbled. This shuffling of scenes is supposed to provide it the look of an “art film,” but it fails miserably, for the jumbling adds no value at all to the plot. The scene sequence, even if given the conventional way, would have had no lesser impact on the outcome of the film.

Some of the scenes are only left to guess: for example, why did Charlie ask India to put ice cream in the freezer? Was he too eager to disclose to her the pending murder? Why did Charlie take Richard’s sunglasses before burning him? If Richard and India are very close to each other, why his death does not perturb India to the extent it must have? And why, moreover, did she or Ewelyn not do anything after discovering that Charlie is the killer of Richard? Why would Charlie unnecessarily wait for 18 years in the institution only to come back at her 18th birthday? It doesn’t make sense at all. There are many such open places, which if the viewer would reflect, would come to her.

The film is laden with great amount of symbolisms. In an attempt to delineate India’s character, the director shows the pitcher plant kept in the art class; he focuses the camera on the pitcher, right after a sensual tease from her classmates. The pitcher, I interpret, is meant to symbolize either of the following: like the Pitcher plant which devours taunting insects, India is capable of devouring little insignificant people like her classmates who taunt at her unnecessarily; or the fact that the Pitcher plant kept in the art class—a dead one—symbolizes that post the death of her father Richard, she has been reduced to be a showcase object, who previously was a violent and confident person.

In another scene, right during the credits, a glass covered over the candle on the birthday cake, extinguishes, which supposedly is to indicate the death of her father.

Another lovely symbolism that caught my attention is her final decision: When she finally leaves home, she leaves behind all the shoes she received as birthday presents, which symbolizes her leaving behind all her ‘insignificant’ past (17 sneakers), and equips herself with an enlightened present (heeled footwear).

Also her reactions towards uncle Charlie is captured using a spider: initially, as Charlie is introduced as her uncle, a spider crawls up to her knees—an insignificant little creature. Then at some point, when she realizes that she fancies Charlie, the spider grows in size and gets into her private parts! And then, when Charlie finally dies, a spider walks across his face and leaves. Spider came; grew in size and got inside; but left finally.

I wish to finish my review with this paragraph. It is impossible to grab the content of the film in one viewing. This is a layered film. It is not just a story of bloodlust (“grow up and take over our name”). It’s a story of transformation; a story of self-discovery. The protagonist manages to discover herself finally, and takes over the family name. The film, overall, is good. But, personally speaking, it is not of my taste.

Scores

Cinematography – 8/10;
Direction – 8/10;
Performances – 8/10;
Story line/Plot – 6/10;
Music – 5/10

Total score — 35/50

Author Credits

IMG-20170206-WA0010Arie is an engineer by training; but by choice a somnophilic artist. He’s interested in everything that arts and humanities has to offer. Defining features of this human being: Calvin and Hobbes, classical/instrumental music, window seats, white tea, philosophy, movies and books. A wannabe digital nomad intending to write on comparative cultural analysis and movie reviews; has some inclination towards cinema. Simply put, a wannabe of all trades.

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