*First published in The Stake
Once there was a moon goddess who hunted in the nighttime woods. One evening, a mortal man caught sight of her weaving through the trees. She carried a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other, and his heart leapt at the sight of her. He desired Artemis, the virgin goddess, for his own.
Determined to seize his prize, he set out with his hounds next night to hunt her. But Artemis caught wind of his plans, perhaps through the rippling of the trees, and laughed.
As the man wandered deep into the woods, Artemis silently followed. When the moon reached its bright zenith, she loosed a terrific laugh. He whirled at the sound and leapt at her with a passionate heart — only to discover he’d been transformed into a stag. She stepped aside, laughter ringing among the trees, as the man’s own hounds caught his scent. He could not speak, could not call them off, and they surged after him, howling with the craze of the hunt.
He fled, his deer heart pounding until at last it failed from exhaustion. He fell to his dogs, and was torn to shreds.
Stoker opens with a young woman standing at the edge of a cornfield. The wind tears at her hair and skirt and her lips crook into a lazy smile. Her voiceover hums in an obtuse meditation about adulthood. The words mean little but the image of her dark hair snapping in the wind as the crickets hum holds atmosphere and aesthetic promise.
Stoker is director Chan-wook Park’s first English speaking film, and he brings a new artful and romantic flair to a story about psychopaths. The violence that flows through Stoker is wrapped up in moonlit nights, piano music, and a young woman’s emergence into womanhood. This is not the world of semiautomatics, knives, and muscular men. It is a drawing room tale where the drama is kept in the home, in surrounding fields and woods; where all the pent up passion and madness is strictly a family affair (as passion and madness so often is). It’s a movie from the Hitchcock and gothic horror tradition: a handful of players have dark desires strong enough to launch a rocket to the moon.
On the morning of India Stoker’s eighteen birthday, news arrives that her father has been killed in a car crash. Birthday celebrations unravel into funeral mourning, and a previously unknown Uncle Charlie (Goode) appears on the day of the funeral. Charlie looks just like his deceased brother and quickly charms India’s newly widowed mother, the lonely and gorgeous Evelyn (Kidman). He moves into the Stokers’ great rambling country mansion after the funeral, and begins a great assault of irresistible and disturbing charm on his 18 year old niece, India (Wasikowska).
India has been left bereft by her father’s loss — they were best friends who went on regular hunting trips together. Her father had all her kills stuffed and mounted as trophies — a collection viewed by her mother with disgust. India resembles the love child of Margot Tenenbaum and Tim Burton, glowering around corners, spying on adults, and surviving school with a sharpened pencil as her only weapon.
Uncle Charlie flows through all his scenes, a pretty smile perched on his lips, his voice low and soothing. He breaks the monotony of grief and becomes India’s obsession. The two circle each other, communicating with raised eyebrows and questioning gazes. Their strange interactions border on the sexual, bringing a queasy hint of incest to the dark thick mix. The mounting eeriness of their exchanges is like reading a Faulkner novel: crazy family shit is on the loose, and there’s no knowing what dark alleyway it’ll veer down next. India is on the verge on the womanhood, and her ability to wield power and protect herself is yet unknown.
“What do you want from me?” India asks.
“I just want to be your friend,” replies Uncle Charlie.
“You don’t have to be my friend. We’re family.”
It is Uncle Charlie who inducts India into adulthood, plunging her into a sexual awakening. When her moonlit make out in the woods with a high school boy turns into an attempted rape, Uncle Charlie swoops in, preventing and avenging the act of violence against India. In a moment of bizarre catharsis, he snaps the boy’s neck and hauls the body back to the family home. Stunned, India follows — and helps him bury the corpse. India trails into the house and showers. She weeps and masturbates as the cleansing water falls. Her uncle’s violence has awoken her.
The murder forges niece and uncle into a powerful duo. They’re hunters now, woven together by blood, murder, and a silvery moon. Each embodies the great swagger of archetypes and myths; they are larger than themselves, beyond the reach of morality tales and ethics. Locked in an isolated mansion, all three family members vie for power, simmering in jealousy of each other’s relationships. And just like the gods, their struggle for domination ends in horrific violence.
The film’s opening image of a lone woman standing over a field of corn, hair and skirt flapping in the wind, is India. She carries her hunting rifle, wears her mother’s blouse and her father’s belt. She climbs out of her uncle’s car to look over the field. Each family member has assisted in her making, and she has chosen to embrace herself. She carries her hunting rifle on her back and walks alone, killing the prey that crosses her path. Her dark hair calls up the night, her white skin the moon. She is Artemis reborn, and has no patience for any man that desires or hinders her.
Stoker is a deeply disturbing film — there’s no doubt about that. But it is also a beautiful and bizarre movie about a girl who becomes a woman by owning her power and her choices. She is a sister to Dexter, the meticulous killer who calls up dark and unexplored longings. India too lives in the shadows of old stories, intertwined with life, death, blood, and sex.
Stoker is exquisite and strange; every shot and word is precise with nothing wasted. The movie reveals more in subsequent viewings, blossoming with richer insights into the characters and story, a testament to the skill, and intelligence it was carefully crafted with. It’s a film that draws on our addiction to anti-heroes and clothes it in completely new light. Move over Natural Born Killers and In Cold Blood. There’s a new woman in town, and she hunts alone.