Chan-wook Park’s Stoker is a Gothic fairytale, a family drama, and a beautifully twisted, pitch-black coming-of-age story, all at once. This slow-burning psychological thriller isn’t afraid to enter uncomfortable places, often edging close to taboo territory. Park wants his audience to twitch in their seats, and the master director can accomplish this with the greatest of ease. Along with first-time screenwriter Wentworth Miller, Park weaves a coming-of-age tale through a tangled, murderous family plot loaded with sexual subtext and upper-class entitlement. People disappear, a landscape of family secrets is revealed, and Park teases the audience into anticipating the worst. With Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Shadow of a Doubt serving as a template, Stoker’s first two acts are, without a doubt, impeccably crafted. The problem comes in the third act. Its script doesn’t quite carry the dramatic heft of his earlier work, much less Hitchcock’s 1943 masterpiece.
What starts as a film that is stylishly spooky and effectively eerie, with an air of quiet eroticism, quickly shifts into a TV movie of the week, with a third act plagued with explanation, exposition, and exploitation. The movie works best when it retains its mystery by withholding information and allowing that information to be disclosed in tiny increments. A great deal of information is withheld at the start, and not just from the audience but from our protagonist, India, as well. But the revelations in the final scenes are a tad disappointing. In Stoker’s third act, all the buildup is overshadowed by some leaps in plausibility and worse, character logic.
The majority of the pic’s running time feels somewhat like a surreal fantasy, and one could assume the events that unfold may be figments of India’s own feverish imagination. As India sets out to explore forbidden grounds and dark secrets, she becomes lost in her sexual awakening. This isn’t the case for the final few scenes, which take the viewers away from India’s home, her eyes, and her mind and presents us with flashbacks that outright dismiss the possibility that Stoker can be interpreted as a fervid dream. Learning Uncle Charlie’s backstory only turns the movie upside down and over on its head. So in assessing Stoker, one must ask if all the talent on display is enough to dismiss a plot that feels forced, mannered, and, ultimately, empty. While individual scenes removed are poetically horrifying and beautifully rendered, as a whole, Stoker is silly.
When the credits roll, if questions are left unanswered, it can be a good thing, depending on what an audience is asking. But when those questions challenge the character’s motivations, reactions, and decisions, it can leave viewers frustrated. The end result is a film less interested in narrative suspense than in carefully orchestrated cross-cutting and meticulous framing. It is said that Park did not have final cut and was forced to edit out 20 minutes of the film. One can’t help but wonder what kind of film Park might have made if he’d had full creative control. One can’t help wondering why Hollywood would even hire such a talent if they did not have faith in him. Park has made it clear in interviews that there were disagreements between him and the studio (Fox Searchlight), and so instead, we have this movie, a film which had the potential to be a masterpiece if not torn between Park’s idiosyncratic vision and Hollywood’s unwillingness to taking risks.