India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is an unusual heroine. Sullen and reticent, she’s distant from the people around her but has a fine sense of the details of her surroundings — the gentle cracking of a hard-boiled egg’s shell, the creeping of a spider on the carpet. When her father dies in a car accident on her eighteenth birthday, leaving India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) alone, a family member formerly unbeknownst to India makes an appearance: her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who also exhibits an ability to “hear what others cannot hear, see what others cannot see.”
Director Chan-wook Park draws us into this finely tuned way of perceiving the world in Stoker, a psychological thriller and warped coming-of-age story. Visually the film is extraordinary. There is an almost mathematical beauty to every shot; everything is balanced, mirrored, and rhythmic, and we continually cut back and forth to create links between scenes and images. The ticking of the metronome matches India’s footsteps as she climbs the stairs, and it keeps time as she makes snow angels on her bed — an image that’s later revisited when Charlie remembers making angels in the sand as a boy. India opens the pencil case where she keeps her lethally sharp #2s, and we cut to her memory of opening the basement freezer and discovering what Uncle Charlie has hidden there. Every image has a meaning, circling back with beautiful precision to another image.
Because of their shared sensibility, there is an immediate energy between India and Charlie — even when it becomes clear that Charlie’s intentions in visiting the Stokers are more ominous than simply mourning his dead brother. Charlie is handsome, poised, and sinister (a definite homage to Hitchcock’s Uncle Charlie in the 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt), and he becomes a twisted mentor for India in her journey towards self-discovery. “Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be,” India’s voiceover whispers in the opening scene. “Only once you realize this do you become free. And to become adult is to become free.” There are elements of a coming-of-age story here, but they’re distorted and perverse. It’s as if we have stepped into a mirror world, where a Philip Glass piano duet between family members can serve as a sexual awakening, and where the “adult” the young hero becomes is something quite different from what one might expect.
The plot itself is a little trite — thrilling, but at times predictable and sprinkled with clichés. Uncle Charlie is first introduced as a graveyard silhouette watching the funeral from a distance (what a trope!), and his shadiness is never in question. Evelyn is also a weak link in the small cast of characters, Kidman doing her best to bring to life the bland, beautiful widow all too ready to move on from her husband’s death. Ultimately it is the cinematography and aesthetic that make this film worth watching. The story may have its moments of weakness, but it’s told so tremendously well that it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen.