By William Repass.
“Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for who we come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free. And to become adult…is to become free.”
A girl with hair like spilled ink sits alone at her desk, flipping through a book of photographs. She waits in her white dress on the precipice of adulthood, closed in by the subdued colors and clashing geometries of her bedroom. Her name is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), and according to her own narration, she sees and hears faraway things, things imperceptible to other people. By this point in the film, she has just turned 18 and attended her father’s funeral. She endures a watertight upper-crust existence, sharing a house in New England with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her enigmatic uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode)––recently home from Europe. Her mother, stirred from a house-bound torpor by the death of her husband, makes no effort to conceal her desire for Charlie. Her brother-in-law, however, has other designs, and India finds herself the object of his attentions––just when her own desires are beginning to flower. (And even if no one seems to care, the housekeeper has gone missing…)
Now the camera glides in for a better look at her impassive expression. Then we see what she sees: a photo of a wave curling in on itself in sepia-tone. She turns the page. Now we see the curves of a shell spiraling against a backdrop of pink sand. She begins to flip back and forth between the two photographs, faster and faster, until the images blur together and the sound of the page turning fills our ears like the sound of the sea. Sea…shell…sea…shell…seashell. The blended images rouse her craving for a blend of flavors. (In an earlier scene, her mother and uncle return from a shopping trip with two buckets of ice-cream: one white with red stripes, chocolate; the other white with yellow stripes, vanilla. When they offer her some, she petulantly replies, “I prefer the swirl-kind.”) With a cut, a harsh fluorescent light displaces the cinematic portmanteau. As if to say eureka.
India has gone down to the basement with wafflecone and ice-cream scoop in-hand, prompted unconsciously by her game with the photographs. Meanwhile, her protective aunt (Jacki Weaver) paces anxiously around a filthy motel room. In town for the funeral, she has seen Charlie’s predatory behavior towards India and decided to keep an eye on things. At the same time, India’s mother climbs the stairs to Charlie’s room with a bottle of wine and a pair of glasses. Just as India places ice-cream back in the freezer, Charlie strangles her aunt with her father’s belt, and her mother opens the door to find his room empty. In a moment of realization, India roots through packages of frozen meat to discover the severed head of the missing housekeeper. She flashes back to an earlier argument between the housekeeper and Charlie, witnessed shortly after his arrival at the Stoker house. In a new light, we see him leaning in again, not merely to cajole the woman but to murder her. This is but the first of a series of twists in the narrative seashell, which culminate in a violent sexual awakening and India’s debut in the adult world.
With its thematic cues and psychological editing, this scene speaks for the film’s strengths and weaknesses as a whole. In terms of its plot, Stoker unfolds like any number of thrillers you’ve seen before, functional enough with its few about-turns, including a play on Hitchcock’s narrative volte-face in Psycho (1960). But on a whole, director Park Chan-wook devotes himself to other concerns. The keen-edged cinematography (some say Hitchcockian, though Cartesian might be more accurate) establishes an array of interlocking visual rhythms, and since the camera tends to weld our perspective to India’s, we too are imbued with a heightened perception. Through her eyes, the film’s carefully limited palette draws our attention to the minutest of details. The red and yellow ice-cream buckets, for example, build on a chromatic motif where yellow represents the qualities of India’s mother, and red the qualities of her uncle. Likewise, the pale greens and neutral whites of the house stand in for the influence of her absent father. India’s personality, as far we come to know it, takes these qualities and mixes them together. In this respect, Stoker satisfies more as a coming-of-age drama than a thriller; India only takes up the investigator role insofar as she tries to discover her own identity through Charlie.
But the film seems to question her ability to do so. She can mix and mimic the clothes, gestures, and personalities of her kin––but real authenticity and freedom seem quite beyond her. Her dark inheritance (both genetic and capital) renders her a parasite. The film’s title, in its reference to the author of Dracula, does suggest a certain vampirism, and India’s character may be read as a clever play on the stereotypes associated with vampire narratives. But Stoker makes more than one subtle reference to Camus as well, in its existential narration, and in the stock-footage of a dung beetle trundling its abject load. Hitchcock, Stoker, or Camus? Whether India’s Sisyphean struggle for identity, for completeness, results in more than a swirled pastiche of reds, yellows, greens, and whites—or a transgression of the past and transcendence of nature—depends on how we arbitrate these references.
William Repass is a recent graduate from Hendrix College. In addition to film criticism, he writes poetry and the occasional 2-3 sentence biography.
Stoker was released on Blu-ray and DVD June 18th, 2013 by Fox Searchlight.
Read also: Stoker: Paying Homage to Uncle Alfred by Cleaver Patterson.