Visceral and description defying, Stoker is experientially odd. Its narrative strains credulity, its characters are poorly developed, and its performances are exaggerated, all of which means it should add to failure. But it doesn’t, not entirely anyway.
Partially because Director Chan Wook Park and Writer Wentworth Miller introduce new thrills at a steady pace: a ticking metronome tracking India (Mia Wasikowska) through her family’s mansion as she discovers a gift box identical to the ones she’s received every year since she was very young; Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) trying to find a working phone so she can warn India; India brushing her mother’s (Nicole Kidman) hair; etc. Such scenes make Stoker eerie and keep the viewer’s interest.
Park’s visuals are also stunning. Stoker’s use of color impresses, as does its oppressive lighting, which often makes the picture seem flush with brightness, a technique that is all the more striking each time Park employs shadow, as when India walks into a crowd of bullying boys or when she moves through her basement.
Yet, Stoker is flawed. First, it stumbles whenever involving outside characters. India’s classmates are inexplicable, especially when one of them tries to rape her. Moreover, Gwendolyn feels out of place, perhaps because Jackie Weaver’s performance strikes a different tone than Kidman’s, Wasikowski’s and Matthew Goode’s (Uncle Charlie).
The latter three performances serve Stoker well, because they are overstated, showing their character archetypes with steady exaggeration. In another movie, their portrayals would be awful, but they work in Stoker, largely because the actors help set a bizarre tone, help enhance the movie’s foreboding fantasy.
Speaking of which, Stoker is best when channeling surrealism. When its fantastical, we can accept its unbelievable narrative and thinly developed characters, which means we can immerse in its metaphorical exploration of teen sexuality, familial dysfunction, loneliness, and grief.
Consider the difficulty in dating the movie. The Stoker mansion is arranged and decorated much like a Romantic-era noble estate; the television seen in Gwendolyn’s hotel room could be from the 1980s; India dresses as if from the 1950s; her cellphone is appropriate to the early 2000s; and so forth. All of these conflicting details tell us that we are not watching reality, which means we can suspend disbelief whenever the film feels untrue.
Unfortunately, Stoker isn’t always so abstract. As one example, when Charlie tells us that the now eighteen-year-old India was born in the mid-1990s, we instantly know this is a modern day setting, which therefore eliminates period ambiguousness. Suddenly, instead of being curious about the film’s date, we’re confounded by all of the conflicting details.
The film’s resolution is equally frustrating. Stoker loses its sense of surreal fantasy by defining Charlie as psychopathic from childhood. He becomes a standard horror movie villain, not a dreamlike character, which means we can no longer accept Evelyn’s (Kidman) attraction to him, India’s fascination with him, or Gwendolyn’s failure to alert authorities that he is at the Stokers’ residence.
All of which is to say Stoker might have been great experimental fantasy, but whenever it channels reality, it makes us question its dubious narrative and thin character development.