Tone and atmosphere can be vitally important elements of a film, especially a film that hues so closely to the realm of gothic horror. At the same time, tone and atmosphere need to be modulated, brought to the fore and shuffled to the background while serving a story with characters in whom we can invest, otherwise they serve as a single note stretched out until it loses all intensity and intrigue and simply becomes a monotonus hum. The tactile feeling of a film can be the thing that draws us in, but it cannot be allowed to be the sole reason for remaining.
Unfortunately, Stoker, it doesn’t appear as though you were ever taught that particular lesson. You begin, like a fearful symphony, on an ominous chord, striking and reverberant. Without knowing why, we are immediately brought into a sense of deep foreboding. From the inscrutable voiceover of your primary character, India (Mia Wasikowska), to the escalation of circumstances leading to the arrival of her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), there is a sense of universal unease at work.
India is searching high and low through field and valley for her annual birthday present, a pair of old-time flat-heeled shoes that are always left hidden for her and wrapped in a yellow ribbon. When she finds the present this year, however, there is only a key inside the box, a key which will open she knows not what. Then the news comes that her father has died in a terrible car accident two states away. India and her father were close enough to make her emotionally unstable mother (Nicole Kidman) feel left out, and the death impacts India terribly. The pain is exacerbated by the sudden arrival of her ingratiating uncle Charlie, who immediately catches the eye of her mother.
All of these pieces are set up with suitably moody, gothic economy by director Park Chan-Wook, whose visual mastery is imported to his first English-language film from his native Korean fully intact. There are scenes in you of obscure menace and beauty, such a the camera watching the path of a spider on the floor, or observing how India uses a boiled egg to drown out the sounds of gossip. However, after a time all of these trappings fail to cover up the elemental issues at the core of your story, what little story there is.
It all comes down to a question of pacing. A healthy dose of atmosphere and foreboding can bring our attention viscerally into a story, but it can’t serve to hold our attention long beyond the point of set up. At some point we need to begin to empathize with a character, or otherwise notice the way in which the story is moving forward so we can orient ourselves to the trajectory of a narrative. You fail to do either of these things, relying instead on temporary action to keep our interest in check.
India never becomes a character for whose safety we fear, knowing as we do that she is the center of the world to the only threat she might face. Even as her place in the story and her innocence becomes less assured, we are never given to feeling that the noose around her neck is tightening in any real or threatening way. Charlie immediately comes off as a sociopath and probable force for evil, and thus the eventual revelations regarding his character never come off as more than a moment in which the characters in the movie are just catching up to where we the audience have been since the opening act.
It all leads up to a final act that therefore feels overladen with a whole movie’s-worth of plot happening in a single flourish, revelations piling on top of one another so quickly that we barely have time to accept the new reality of one twist before it has been replaced. It leads to a further disconnect, as we detach from the narrative so as to hold back our feelings for when things have finally settled down. Each new revelation then becomes another moment ticking by unfelt before we are sure we can reacquaint ourselves with the characters and where they stand now.
All of this is to say that you are something of a disappointment, but even a disappointing time can still be one worth having. Without a doubt, Stoker, you are a film worth seeing, if only because you offer narrative, performances, and moments that I feel will not be doubled in the year to come. A unique and beautiful film, you do suffer from your flaws, but you do not wholly fail because of them.
Fraught but friendly,
Brian J. Roan