Sunday, June 9, 2013

Stoker and the secrets families keep

The best thing about the recently-released film Stoker is Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker. A glitteringly wild-eyed and intense Matthew Goode as her uncle Charlie Stoker and a befuddled and repressed Nicole Kidman as her mother Evelyn Stoker are very good, but Mia owns the role of India Stoker. I’ve seen her in Alice in Wonderland and in Jane Eyre. I loved the latter film; she was a perfect Jane Eyre in my book. Stoker is about the coming of age of India Stoker, a peculiar teenage girl and only child whose eighteenth birthday celebration is marred by the tragic death of her father Richard Stoker (played by Dermot Mulroney) in a car accident. India as deftly played by Mia Wasikowska is a non-emotional, brooding teenage girl who does not like to be touched and who cannot seem to find her exact place in the world until she meets her uncle Charlie, whose existence she was unaware of until he shows up at her father’s funeral. And then all hell breaks loose. I didn’t find Stoker as shocking as many reviewers have described it, although its cruelty is provocative. It’s not a film for everyone, not a crowd pleaser, and that was clear to me last night when I was at the cinema. It was screened for viewing in one of the smaller auditoriums that ended up half-empty on a Saturday night. Its narrative form reminded me of psychological horror films from the 1970s, where you knew something bad was coming already from the first few minutes of the films and you dreaded it, dreaded watching what gradually unfolded onscreen. I found Stoker rather restrained, detached, and slow-moving but deliberately-paced, almost as though it was an investigation into how murderers are born. On looking back at it, I would guess that this has to do with that most of the story takes place from the perspective of India, whose coming of age and emergence from her cocoon of teenage moodiness as a full-blooded killer are gradual. She responds slowly to the evil and madness in her uncle Charlie, whose attempts to seduce her are not just sexually-motivated; her uncle is turned on by the evil he somehow sees or senses inside of her, and he wants to be the one to bring it out. He is what she needs to turn the screw inside of her, to force her to ‘become herself’, to acknowledge who and what she really is. It’s as though India knew he existed all along, and was just waiting for him to come and release her; this is never more clear than when she reads the letters her uncle has sent to her during her growing-up, which have been hidden from her by her father in a locked box. It is the first time you see her excited and happy, because she understands that someone really understands how she feels, a scenario not unlike what could happen to most normal teenagers. The deliberate pace reflects her own confusion—it’s as though she cannot believe that she really is a killer, and spends most of the film coming to terms with that unpleasant fact. The film is about the making of a killer and the acknowledgment that one is a killer, how to internalize that knowledge and move on with life. India does show some remorse, when she cries in the shower remembering the boy Whip who tried to rape her and who was killed by her uncle. It’s unclear if she’s crying for him or for herself. But once stoked and excited by her newfound feelings, she is a quick learner. In truth, she has already been well taught (stoked) by her father, who took her hunting from a very young age. The movie presents her father as a hero type, one who took care of his brothers and who protected Evelyn and India from uncle Charlie, who ended up in a mental institution after the cold-blooded murder of his little brother when they were children. And you find out along the way who really was responsible for India’s father’s death and why. But you have to wonder why a father would take his daughter hunting for hours at a time, teaching her to be silent, to wait, and then to go in for the kill when the prey makes itself visible. It’s a brutal way to spend hours of time with a child; I could think of so many other pastimes that would have been more appropriate for a father and daughter. It made me wonder if her father had sensed or seen in her some of the traits he had seen in his brother Charlie, and hoped that by teaching her to hunt that he would ward off coming misery. If so, his plan backfired, since he sets his daughter up for the life she eventually chooses. And did her mother sense something odd about India as well, and tried to repress the knowledge? It’s unclear. That is perhaps one weakness in the plot; Evelyn Stoker’s character could have been developed more fully, in order to give us some insight into how the relationship between mother and daughter became so dysfunctional. It is intimated that perhaps Richard loved his daughter more than he loved his wife; it is also fairly clear that Evelyn did not really look forward to having children. The film becomes more imbued with real emotion, becomes less detached and more real, when Evelyn finally begins to wake up and to say how she feels, but by then it is too late for her relationship with India.

Perhaps the most shocking thing in the film is that the emerging killer is a young woman. But the ultimate shocker by the end of the film is that no one is safe, not even uncle Charlie. By then, India has been witness to, and a silent partner in, one murder, and privy to the knowledge of three others committed by her uncle (her father, the housekeeper, and her aunt). Uncle Charlie is merely a liability at this point and she no longer needs him. The film ends with her leaving home; she has come into her own and embraced her own cold-blooded insanity, as exemplified by her deliberately-staged confrontation with the sheriff who suspects she has had something to do with Whip’s disappearance. She has learned to lie and how to throw people off her scent, or how to deal with those who track her. She is her uncle’s protégé, and she has learned her lessons well. 

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