Chan-wook Park is not a stranger to demented family relationships. In fact, he seems drawn to them. In most of his films, from Oldboy to Thirst, some form of a familial dynamic presents itself in a dark, and usually disturbing way. What Chan-wook Park had been a stranger to, though, was directing a film written by someone else and filmed in the English language. Luckily, neither of these firsts keep Chan-wook from enveloping every frame of Stoker. As the credits roll, there is no question that Stoker is a Park Chan-wook film through and through.
Stoker begins as the Stoker family, India(Mia Wasikowska), her mother Evelyn(Nicole Kidman), and the mysterious uncle Charles(Matthew Goode) struggle through the grief of the recent death of the paternal figure, Richard Stoker(Dermot Mulroney). That grief starts as a plot point, but is quickly elevated to the underlying theme of the entire film. Whatever plot progression the film takes, which is a darkly entertaining one, Stoker never strays far from its grief. Leaving the audience to wallow in it, to feel the repercussions of death and the effect it has on the familial dynamic.
Chan-wook doesn’t just film actors emoting grief, he dips the entire movie in it. Grief isn’t just an emotion, it is a tactile experience for the characters and through Chan-wook’s direction, for the audience itself. Sounds are louder, eggs cracking, hair combing, birds tweeting, all are amplified to the point they are equal with the dialogue, sometime overcoming it completely. Touch is intensified, to the point that a spider crawling on a shoe is a noticeable event. Moments are slowed down and fused together. Through cross-cuts and other editing techniques events meld into each other with such frequency and intensity that it becomes unclear of where they belong in relation to each other. It is only clear that the grief has caused every moment to be slowed down, amplified, and nearly indistinguishable from each other.
This directorial influence by Chan-wook Park allows the grief to be more than a story element, to become a palpable experience for the audience. The skeleton of this thematic expression, however, was created well in advance by screenwriter Wentworth Miller. By no accident, there are two central deaths in the film that trigger a change in the relationships of a family. Two moments that force a family into a real decision point of what their family is and how to proceed. The first death, subsequently, causes the second death to compound that familial decision-making to a point that might make Shakespeare blush. Hamlet might even wince at the family dynamic here.
In addition to the thematic element of grief, Chan-wook and Miller also seem mutually interested in exploring cause and effect. What causes a person, especially during their formative years, to become the person they are? Is choice involved, is it genetics, is it outside stimuli, or perhaps it’s all of these things? While Stoker doesn’t really offer a concrete answer to these ideas, it seems pretty content to ask and present the rumination of that central question. And, in the end, that is enough to lift Stoker from a simple tale of a dark teen doing dark things within a dark family dynamic.
This isn’t to say that Stoker shys away from the dark, and sometimes pulpy, content matter that the plot presents, but it does offer quite a bit more to the audience along the way. Part rumination of guilt, and part examination of how our family and environment affects our lives, Stoker is a film that will entertain you during its playing time only to leave you nervously scratching your head by the time the credits roll.