India (Mia Wasikowska) is an 18-year-old girl living in the rural setting of a 50s-style Americana, but in the present day. Her father is killed in a car accident on her birthday, leaving her to live with her mother (Nicole Kidman) and housekeeper in the family’s large country house; styled with expensive, but restrained taste. Then her father’s younger brother Charlie turns up unannounced at the wake. His precise, calm manner imposes a quietly compelling presence on India and her mother, but there is something unseemly about Charlie’s fascination with his niece.
You are defined by your nature, so make your peace with that and life will be easier for you. That is the sentiment offered in voiceover by India at the start of Park’s mesmerising new film. She is a wild child of nature. Brought up by her father to hunt animals with a rifle, she runs free in the grounds of the house and is on the cusp of adulthood, just beginning to discover her power – psychologically and sexually. She claims to hear and see details in the world that other people cannot, and the sound department excel themselves in portraying this with amplified wind, insects, bodily sounds and even a squelching pencil sharpener into sensual soundscapes.
Since birth, India has received a pair of identically-styled shoes for her birthday, gradually marking her progress to womanhood. Suspend your disbelief for she appears not to know who gave them to her, these shoeboxes wrapped in yellow ribbon and hidden for her to find in an outdoor treasure hunt each year. And this female is a hunter, make no mistake about that. For her 18th birthday she receives, not shoes, but an old metal key – substantial and with looped metal fob, pregnant with mystery as to which lock it will fit. There are echoes of the Bluebeard myth here – the pursuit of a young female by a predatory man.
Matthew Goode is hypnotic as Charlie. An inhuman, robotic man with a hint of menace beneath that still exterior. He is a nightmare of preppy perfection; his clothing neat and pressed, his skin a flawless tan colour. He cooks refined meals for India and her mother, espouses on the qualities of wine (“The young wine is not ready to be drunk. It has too many tannins”), but never touches food or drink himself. His eyes gleam at India, producing in her a fearful eroticism. He offers her wine from his glass and she drinks in deeply, but warily. The tension is brought to a crescendo as he joins her at the family piano, playing a rolling bass accompaniment to her high-pitched treble, his hands brushing hers, their obvious synchronicity hinting at something similar in both of them. He’s a character born of Hitchcock, as is this hyper-real world Park has created.
The visual style is glossy, even a little oppressive, but it matches the story well. Chung-hoon Chung, Park’s long-time cinematographer, renders interiors in rich, dark tones; day exteriors in bright, almost celestial light and nights in high-contrast moonlight. The tilt-and-shift split focus in close-ups is quite all-encompassing, drawing the viewer into India’s private world.
If IMDb is correct, this is the first writing credit for Wentworth Miller, star of the TV series Prison Break. It’s an incredible debut.
I love Stoker and was absolutely taken with the sense of forbidding mystery in which it is steeped. It is a film rich in the symbolism of old European folk tales about coming of age, unbound natural forces and the power they endow; a story to be held up against Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth for representing the feminine archetype – with a twist. Things are not what they seem.