We don’t really know what to make of India Stoker. On the surface, there isn’t all that much to see, apart from a plain, impassive face. She doesn’t even speak unless she has to. But it’s obvious that something intense lurks through the corridors of her mind, keeping her in a perpetual state of deep thought. We don’t necessarily know what she’s thinking, not at first. However, one can sense how keenly aware she is of her surroundings, how powerfully she perceives and responds to her world. It is, admittedly, a rather narrow world; on the basis of what we’re shown, all she intimately knows is her house and the nature that surrounds it. School, which she does attend, is seen only briefly and comes off as foreign. We not explicitly told how she feels about other people, but given how reservedly she walks the school grounds, perhaps we don’t need to be told.
India is played by Mia Wasikowska, one of the most versatile and accomplished young actresses of our time, having played major roles in films as diverse as Jane Eyre, Alice in Wonderland, Albert Nobbs, and The Kids Are All Right. She now stars in Stoker, a hypnotic, skin-crawling psychological thriller that marks the English-language debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook. It’s unnerving from the very first frame to the very last, and yet it inspires nothing less than helpless fascination. It invites us to decipher the characters, unpleasant though they may be, without much aid from dialogue. For the most part, we have only actions and facial expressions to go on. There are bold gestures, like stabbing someone in the hand with a pencil, or breaking someone’s neck with a belt, or stuffing a body into a basement freezer. On the same token, there are subtleties, such as a slight smirk, or a raised eyebrow, or a piano duet that may or may actually be taking place.
When the film begins, we get a sense of the affluence India has been raised in – a spacious house nestled in a picturesque patch of isolated forest land. This world is the setting for India’s eighteenth birthday, which is, unfortunately, the same day her father (Dermot Mulroney) dies mysteriously in a car accident. At his funeral, India notices the silhouetted figure of a man standing on hill in a distant section of the cemetery. She stares at him, knowing full well that he’s staring right back at her. Later, at the wake, India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), introduces India to her uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode). Up until that very moment, India didn’t know that she had an uncle. He’s boyishly handsome and affable, if a little soft spoken. He seems to be getting along splendidly with Evelyn, who was in tears over her husband only a few hours earlier. India has no idea how to process this man, certainly not after losing her father, who bonded with her during hunting trips.
Indeed, the film repeatedly toys with perceptions of predator and prey. Exactly who is Charlie? His flirtatious advances on Evelyn notwithstanding, the sexual tension between him and India is palpable – so palpable, in fact, that it quickly becomes clear that she’s the real object of his desire. But he’s also aware of threats, including Great Aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), who, out of concern for India, questions the thinking behind allowing Charlie to stay at the house. India also knows a threat when she sees it, and for that kind of training, she has her father to thank. Two specific threats appear to her in the form of high school boys, one a loudmouthed jerk in a gang, the other a crafty manipulator who works solo. Evelyn, who was never all that stable to begin with, is threatened by none other than India, who not only stole the affections of her dead husband but now seems to be zeroing in on Charlie.
There’s a side to Charlie Evelyn is unaware of. India, on the other hand, sees that side of him on full display. He doesn’t make much of an effort to hide it from her. Likewise, she doesn’t make much of an effort to stop him. She will spend much of the film like that, her feelings for her uncle adrift in a disturbing gray zone between apprehension and lust. India knows that she’s maturing. So does Charlie; this is evidenced by the final gift he gives her, one that continues an annual birthday tradition while at the same time changes it irrevocably. However, they both have very different ideas of what she’s now prepared to become. Charlie, his male ego having been warped at a very early age, envisions a bizarre fetishistic fantasy. India, on the other hand, envisions her independence. This wouldn’t be so dissimilar from most other eighteen-year-olds were it not for her fierce instincts for self-preservation.
With this in mind, it can be argued that Stoker is in fact a coming-of-age story, India on the path towards an emotional awakening. By the end of the film, she finally makes the distinction between predator and prey, which is to say she knows which categories she and everyone around her falls into. She may know, but we in the audience don’t; each member of the Stoker family will not only take on both roles but will usually do so simultaneously. The line between the roles has been so thoroughly blurred, in fact, that I believe making such a distinction on our own would be utterly pointless. It might even be impossible. That’s probably for the best, since we shouldn’t have a firm grasp of these characters. We should ponder the mystery of who they are and what motivates them.
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Fox Searchlight Pictures