Last month, I was quite surprised to learn a few things about model/actor Wentworth Miller – first, that he was gay; second, and more astonishingly, that he was forty-one years old; and third, that he was now a screenwriter, with a film starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska already in American release.
The film, Stoker, was written by Miller under the pseudonym Ted Foulke; he wanted the screenplay to be judged on its own merit, without any consideration of his celebrity. And, as it turns out, he’s not just a pretty (and seemingly ageless) face. This guy can write.
Stoker is the tale of India (Wasikowska), an eighteen-year-old girl who, it is explained, can see and hear those tiny sensory details that go unnoticed by other people. In truth, she’s a girl on the cusp of womanhood, withdrawn from others and deeply affected by the loss of her father, whose death sets the events of the film in motion. Her mother, Evelyn (Kidman), is an aggrieved, distant shell of a woman, and the two share a strained relationship, further complicated by the arrival of India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), returned from his travels in Europe to live with them.
I hesitate to describe the scenario any further, because one of the great joys of this film is how consistently it defies your expectation. This is not a simple mystery, with the killer revealed in a shocking twist at the film’s conclusion; rather, it’s an unnerving series of revelations about these characters that keep the viewer continually off-balance and in a state of anxiety. To call it horror is not quite accurate – it more often bears the pace of a psychological thriller, which seeks to disturb rather than frighten.
The film is directed by Park Chan-wook, the South Koren director best known for his Vengeance trilogy; he’s no stranger to films about brutal murders, but this is his first English language feature. He cleverly plays upon India’s intense sensitivity to her surroundings – the camera is drawn to minutiae such as a spider on her stocking, the wind blowing her skirt, or the cold light of an electric bulb, and these are often superimposed against moments of shock and self-realisation that she attempts to reconcile with herself.
The film is absolutely laden with symbolism, much of which I feel I missed while navigating the narrative. India’s sexual awakening is first represented by a series of euphemisms, everything from ice cream to her finger on the trigger of a gun (and, less subtly, through an intense piano duet in one of the film’s more memorable scenes). I’d love to see the film again scene by scene, because I’m absolutely certain I’d discover further imagery and subtext within its every deliberate choice of locale, object, song and sound.
Though it is set in the current day, Stoker opts for a deliberately older and more Gothic appearance. India, Evelyn and Charlie dress with a sort of 1950s elegance, and the large manor (and a certain hotel) could be settings drawn directly from a Hitchcock film. I was thrown, in fact, when we suddenly see India at her high school later in the narrative, and I had to remind myself that this story takes place in the twenty-first century. The anachronism contributes to an almost surrealist feel; the film drifts further into fairytale than reality.
All the performances in this film are terrific. Matthew Goode’s Charlie is both charming and frightening in equal measure, and Nicole Kidman – nowadays an absolute pro at playing broken, distraught women – gives a restrained and perversely sympathetic performance, her Evelyn cruel at times but never villainous. But Mia Wasikowska’s India is the real stand-out. Her intensity, sexual yearning and simmering aggression are absolutely palpable.
And there’s even a surprising cameo from Jacki Weaver; it’s a shame that Hollywood only ever gives her small roles, but she works well with what she’s given here.
When I discovered that Wentworth Miller had penned this feature, I was very careful to avoid any other details before seeing it for myself. And I’m glad I did – Stoker is a beautifully disturbing and perversely tangled piece of cinema, and not at all the sort of film I would have expected from him. It’s a coming-of-age story with a twist of Hitchcock thriller and Grimm fairytale. We still don’t have a rating system yet for this sort of thing, so I’m not going to quantify it with a number, but… just see it. If not for me, then for Jacki.