The tradition of Southern Gothic literature runs like an avoided shadow along the peripheries of great American art. Unlike, say, the cinema renaissance of the 70s or the Gatsby explosion of the 20s or Pollack and Hemingway’s high brow acceptance into the mainstream, great Southern Gothic writing, while some of the most pointed to ever come from American pens, has always seemed a hidden stepchild of surface culture. That’s perhaps the precise reason that I find the likes of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner so compelling to dig at. They gave us a type of storytelling that has not and could not exist in any other space or geography, yet they don’t have nearly the kind of legacy that generally eats up this kind of work and chews it into a million pieces. I am always drawn to the haunting threads of Southern stories that pop up now and again, especially in the cinema.
Last year, Lee Daniels’ much-maligned The Paperboy conveyed the humidity, sex, dirt, and bombasticism of great Southern Gothic work. In the face of its comic book sheen, there’s seriousness to Daniels’ film. Similarly, Chan Wook-Park’s Stoker, billed for everything but its gothic roots (Nicole Kidman, Sundance fare, horror film, Park’s English debut) ascends what you typically see in theaters because of the creepy undercurrent running beneath its plantation style homes and regal costume design. That it’s directed by a man whose style and upbringing couldn’t be further from the American South only adds another welcome layer to what’s already a gleefully unbridled genre.
While I can’t remember any mention to a specific locale in Stoker, the film feels like it might’ve been taken from the pages of Shirley Jackson or Roald Dahl (not that Dahl has any real connection to the South) or Flannery O’Connor, all of whom fit the mold of quirky psychological thriller that remains firmly in the gothic vein. After Richard Stoker dies, his handsome brother Charlie comes to live with his surviving daughter India and his aging wife, Evelyn. Almost immediately, Evelyn and Charlie begin to have a strangely sexual relationship, to the dismay of India. After India discovers that Charlie has been committing murders, she finds herself unhealthily drawn to her uncle as well. As she pieces together the truth of his violent past, India realizes that she has bloodlines that run closer to her uncle than anyone else in the world. She comes to be free by accepting her murderous instincts.
Central to Stoker is India Stoker, a young woman predisposed to a darkness that she wears in every morsel of her evenly parted hair and dour stares. Not unlike Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in a Castle, India holds the cards to the Stoker legacy even if her youth leaves her too disrespected or inexperienced to fully wield her power. Throughout Stoker, India finds strength in her dark side and by the end she comes to blossom into her fully realized violent self. While the main theme of Stoker revolves around familial roots and one’s inability to break free from genetic demands, the socio-culture elements convey something even more startling. To be attractive and want to be desired controls everything within the confines of this story. Nicole Kidman’s aging beauty desperately tries to lure in her late husband’s brother, a stately and handsome young man whose killer instincts are masked by the control of his chiseled looks. Charlie himself learns to kill because he’s attracted to his older brother but doesn’t get enough attention in return. India is harassed by immature young men who are both demeaning and attracted to her taciturn female charms. To be attractive in Stoker is to exist with impunity. However, to be attractive and watch that attraction come into question is also the recipe for violent desires and murder.
Chan-Wook Park’s strange directorial choices, from the wooden acting to the attention deficit camera dollies, move in direct contradiction with the regality of the script. Yet, this oil and water dynamic makes for an intriguing experience wherein a personal, somewhat distracting, stamp is placed on a film that might have easily been handled in a straight-forward manner. There’s a distancing lack of clarity to Stoker that makes it difficult to chew on, but easy to continue to think about. Tonally, like Park’s Korean films, the story spirals in many different directions that rarely add up to a cohesive sense of the whole. Stoker rumbles and stumbles towards its conclusion by sheer force of bizarre set piece after bizarre set piece. None of the reveals feel altogether earned and the final killings come with little foundational value. But again, the film’s strangeness is also its strength.
Stoker will turn away most who will be especially forgiving of Park’s direction and harsh to what they seeing as the failings of its script. I entirely disagree with this assessment. Park, in some respects, should have never taken on Stoker because he can’t possible understand this kind of material (or at least it seems that way from his untethered approach to it). The story itself has the makings of a great little indie creeper that could have been executed like, say, Martha Marcy May Marlene. The fact that Park’s direction explodes this expectation is what makes this film feel so uneasy. That said, I enjoyed the experience of watching great art with some unique observations about life. Does the film work? Not really. Those imperfections though are what make me want to come back to it. Like The Paperboy last year, this is another unpredictable entry into America’s most misunderstood artistic invention. [B]