By Max Nelson on 3.4.2013
Many terrible things happen in Stoker, the new film (and the first in English) from Korean mastermind Park Chan-wook, who has made several other films in which terrible things happen. I entered Stoker with some reservations, imagining that it would be heavy on spilled blood and low on compassion, but it turned out to be wickedly amusing and winkingly self-mocking. It’s a film that delights in every form of excess indiscriminately, like a kid who knows he’s already in trouble and might as well cram as much senseless destruction as he can into a single offense, making one suspicious about the very idea of “redeeming value.” It’s an evil film, but very fun.
Stoker unfolds like Shadow of a Doubt without a trace of mystery. We know from the start that Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who good-naturedly descends upon his brother’s very recently bereaved wife, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska) on the day of the latter’s 18th birthday, is bad news; that Evelyn isn’t all that warm of a mother; and that something is simmering inside quiet, repressed India. The fun, at least in the beginning, lies in watching this trio of fine actors pick each other apart with a relish they thinly suppress but never really care to hide.
Park and writer Wentworth Miller have a fondness for symbolism bordering on the tyrannical: a piano is never allowed to be just a piano, nor a spider a spider—and a belt definitely not a belt. Details from shoes, wine, and hairbrushes to dresses, books and even the occasional childhood memory never stay locked down in the background; they assert themselves on us, force our attention their way. No implication goes unspoken, no Theme goes unnamed, and no opportunity for associative cross-cutting goes untaken—just as no act of violence is free to end without a final twist of the knife.
That would be a problem if Park and Miller hadn’t cherry-picked genres that transform their vices into virtues: the family melodrama, with its love of excess and its open-book indiscretion; the fairy tale of the original Grimm breed, with its crude, zealous belief in eye-for-an-eye justice; the Freudian coming-of-age-film (think Louis Malle’s Black Moon, or Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), with its deliciously overcooked symbolism. Maybe a problem would still be there—if Stoker weren’t also so damn funny. The whole thing takes place one level or two above reality, in an overwrought, candy-colored world made up of equal parts pheromones and spite. Every snippet of dialogue is spoken in a register between a whisper and a moan. Mothers spit lines like “personally speaking, I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart” to their seething daughters. A basement icebox is equally fit to store frozen treats and murdered housemaids. A piano duet between uncle and niece quickly morphs into foreplay and just keeps going, until our jaded told-you-sos give way to nervous laughter.
What might be most impressive about Stoker, though, is how thoroughly Park has nailed a very particular, and very American, breed of small-town Southern gothic. Stoker’s America is pure fantasy, stitched together from James Dean movies and Fifties television: its high-school bullies talk like greaser toughs and ride motorcycles to and from late-night diners; its housewives are well-educated and well-coiffed, its sheriffs well-intentioned and harmless. This is one mythologized America, but Stoker’s pitch-black humor, its gleeful sadism, and its train-wreck fascination with the lurid and perverse belong to a very different sort of national mythology, one propagated by respectable visionaries from Poe to Flannery O’Connor, but also by dime-store romance novelists and soap opera producers.
America has always had a tendency to inflate its dark side, to deal with the horrific by making it into the stuff of legend and finally, by its very extremity, into the stuff of comedy. Stoker’s showy, expressionist compositions and extreme visual stylization might owe a debt to Europe and the East, but the film’s brand of baroque family cruelty is as American as ice cream—provided it’s frozen beside a corpse.