A reading of Chan-Wook Park's Stoker

[SPOILER ALERT: This is a reading of the movie Stoker (2013), directed by Chan-Wook Park, so spoilers abound. If you are sensitive to those things, this is probably best read after seeing the movie, which I recommend you do.]

One of the movies I enjoyed most at Sundance in January was Stoker. Its lineage is a peculiar one: directed by Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy), written by Wentworth Miller (star of Prison Break and two Mariah Carey videos, though that's an unfairly selective reduction of his resume), and starring an international cast from Mia Wasikowski and Matthew Goode to Nicole Kidman and Jacki Weaver.

Even at Sundance, the responses to the movie were mixed. Now that it has been released, the reviews are still mixed. The most common criticism of the movie is that it's pointless, and some who are taking it in at face value find it to be all style and absurdly plotted. Even those who like it, like Anthony Lane, seem puzzled by what it's all about.

The eye of the beholder is relentlessly dazzles, but to what end?
There are two ways of looking at this. One is to propose a perfect mesh of form and content, whereby the director's signature approach, strivingly baroque, has found its rightful place in the overheated goings on chez Stoker. The other is that India, Charlie, and the rest of the gang are the last thing that Park requires. No sooner has he landed in America than he has tripped into one of its mustiest cultural traps—the proposition  advanced by scores of movies, that the South is little more than a barbecue pit of frail eccentrics, secluded matriarchs, white-linen Lucifers, and outright streaming maniacs.
If Hitchcock's first film in this country, "Rebecca," gave us cliff-high romantic obsession, rich with the credible terror of lives gone wrong, what has Park imported? Six camera moves in search of a meaning.

Let's try to supply that meaning as Park has provided very strong signals that we are not to read it as a literal tale of Southern gothic intrigue.

Immediately after seeing the movie, I had a strong thesis stuck in my head, and listening to Park discuss the movie during Q&A after its premiere I felt even more certain Park had set out to take what was originally a script that was meant to be about one thing and transformed it into a story about something else.

Rumors of battles behind the scenes with producers may have meant he only got part of the way there, but I he still transformed what I suspect was just a pure Hitchcock homage into something much more interesting. Though I'll have to work from my memory of the movie, which has blurred a bit, I want to defend the movie against its critics, many of whom seem befuddled. Judged against what I believe to be Park's intent, I found the movie a very sly success.

Before the screening began, Park said, through his translator, that the movie was simply about the journey of one young girl and that, as we all knew, all young girls were special in their own way. I'm not sure about the accuracy of the translation, but it was a strong clue about how much it was Mia Wasikowska's movie in Park's mind. Many critics have read Stoker as a dysfunctional family drama, and there are bits of that, but I believe Park was laser focused on the character of India Stoker (Wasikowska).

To believe Park directed the movie with great intent, of course, I'm relying on that statement by Park. Several long answers from Park during Q&A further enforced my suspicions. The actors noted that even before they'd flown out to the set, they received, from Park, a dense bible of storyboards and notes breaking down each scene. One of the reasons they wanted to work with Park was that they felt they were going to be part of a very thoughtful vision. Park was not haphazard in his shot selection, and I don't believe it was just stylistic fussiness.

To understand the movie, it's essential to understand one thing: Stoker is about India's sexual awakening. One might say it's about every girl's sexual awakening, but how it manifests itself in this movie is a result of India's particular life circumstances. Similarities and references to movies like Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt and Psycho end up being, for the most part, incidental.

As the movie begins, India is beginning to experience her sexual awakening, but she doesn't fully grasp what's happening. All she knows is she is feeling...strange. This is conveyed literally, at times. For example, in a scene in which she is in the kitchen peeling eggs, she can hear, with particular acuity, the cracking of the shells. Heightened body and environment awareness is often a trope of rising sensuality.

At times Park conveys it with imagery. India is at the piano in one scene, and we see a spider that feels a vibration on its web from the strings of the piano (an annotated storyboard of the scene can be found at the NYTimes). It skitters off its web and crawls up India's leg and then thigh, disappearing between India's legs up her skirt. India seems to notice the spider but does not react.

Are we meant to read the spider literally? If so, the movie is truly strange. I find that extremely unlikely. It's just too bizarre and random a scene to throw in otherwise. I read the spider symbolically, and its ultimate destination up between her legs is no coincidence.

Some might read the spider as representing her Uncle Charles (Matthew Goode), sneaking like a predator into their lives, but this fits my theory even more precisely because Uncle Charles represents India's sexuality.

When he first appears on the scene, off in the distance during India's father's funeral, we don't know who he is. India catches him out of the corner of her eye, and then he's gone. She feels his presence near, but she's not certain who the man is or why he's lingering near. Later, when he appears at their house at the post-funeral reception, India continues to regard him warily. She's both puzzled and suspicious.

Sexual awakenings are often bewildering. One day you regard the opposite sex with disdain, and then the next day they turn you into an explosive hormonal soup.

Before she can understand what she's feeling, she's at her sexuality's mercy. This is conveyed by a moment at which Charles appears at the top of the stairway, India at the bottom. Their positioning on the stairway represents the power dynamic at that early stage of the movie. Later in the movie, when she has mastered her sexuality, the shot is echoed but reversed, and this time she's at the top of the stairs and he's at the bottom. 

That Matthew Goode's character appears exactly the day her father dies is not a coincidence, either literally, because Charles kills her father, or figuratively. A girl's father is the first man in her life, but of necessity the relationship is not a sexual one. We see this in the flashbacks to India with her father, the two of them out hunting. It's an activity you'd expect a father to take his son on, and thus it casts India in that period as a tomboy, almost asexual. [For me it recalled images of a father sitting on his porch with a shotgun, fending off gentleman callers for his daughter.]

The timing of her father's death and Uncle Charles escape from the asylum and arrival at the house are very precisely timed to a critical, specific date: India's 18th birthday. Charles makes note to ask her very explicitly, at one point, if she's remembers what date those events occurred on, and her answer reveals it to the audience.

The 18th birthday is, of course, a symbolically important one. It represents the age at which one becomes an adult, legally, but it's also, in the United States, the age at which a person achieves some legal sexual freedom. 

When a girl begins having sexual feelings towards the opposite sex, her relationship with men, largely defined by her relationship with her father, shifts forever. She'll no longer regard men the same way. Thus Charles must kill her father the day she turns 18. Ask any father about his daughter and he'll joke about sitting on the porch with a shotgun and shielding his daughter from boys, but he also knows he'll fail at the task.

Our sexuality is in us from birth, and Charles indeed is alive but hidden away from India until her 18th birthday. However, we're given another symbol of his presence, and those are the presents she receives from him on every birthday. A pair of shoes, very specifically chosen to be as asexual as possible: saddle shoes. She receives the same pair every year, just slightly larger.

Given my thesis, it will not be difficult to guess, even if you haven't seen the movie, what she receives from her Uncle on her 18th birthday. Not saddle shoes, this time, but a pair of high heels, the footwear most associated with sex. I remember in that moment before she opened the box, sitting in my seat, this theory percolating in my mind, thinking that if the box revealed a pair of high heels, I'd be convinced this was Park's intention all along. Indeed, that is what she finds in the box (I don't remember now, but I think the heels were bright red, too, long the color of sexual desire).

As her sexuality gains momentum, it begins to sweep aside all sexual rivals. At first, it's the housemaid Mrs. McGarrick, an older woman. Then another older woman, India's aunt Gwendolyn, played by Jacki Weaver. Both these women are past their sexual primes. 

The most important of sexual rivals to India is actually her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). At first, Uncle Charles gets along great with Evelyn, and it seems as if he's intent on seducing her. India's mother is still young and beautiful enough to alluring, and she's in the best position to understand what India's going through, so it's not surprising that she gets on with Uncle Charles so swimmingly.

But over time, as India comes to surrender to her new sexual desire, Uncle Charles draws closer. We come to understand that her relations to the opposite sex at school have been, up until that point, awkward. We see her harassed by a gang of boys at school. After they make some sexually suggestive comments about her mother, India stabs one of them in the hand.

That leads into her transition into a more sexually welcoming relationship with boys, embodied by her relationship with a boy named Whip Taylor. After India spots her Uncle Charles seducing her mother Evelyn in the house, India realizes she is sexually jealous of her mother. She runs off into the woods where she encounters Whip. One things leads to the other, and soon they're making out against a tree. When India bites Whip in the throes of her sexual aggression, he attempts to rape her. Just at that moment, Uncle Charles shows up, and using his belt, breaks Whip's neck as he is lying on top of India. Uncle and niece bury Whip in the garden.

Rather than believe Uncle Charles left Evelyn mid-seduction and wandered into the woods to follow India, it's much simpler to read his appearance at the moment of India's first self-directed sexual experience as more proof that he represents her sexuality. That he kills Whip at the moment of Whip's attempted rape is a pivotal inflection in the movie, the moment India both understands and gains control of her sexual power.

Her understanding of sexual power is reflected in her understanding of the depth of Uncle Charles' brutality. Earlier in the movie, India finds Mrs. McGarrick's head in the freezer in the basement. After she helps to bury Whip, she tries to call her aunt Gwendolyn, she hears the phone ringing deep in the ground. She realizes Uncles Charles killed both of them.

Immediately after that discovery, India takes a shower and masturbates, flashing back to  images of the moment her uncle killed Whip in the woods just as she climaxes. The scene drew lots of snickers in the theater, and it does play absurdly if viewed literally, but  it neatly links her moment of realization of the potency of her sexual desire and the effect of her sexual attraction on men.

How are we to read Charles Stoker's backstory? Is it a vestige of the original script by Wentworth Miller, something Park could not take out of the movie?

I believe it can be fit into my thesis about his symbolic role in the movie, though it's certainly more tenuous. We see in a flashback that Charles murdered his younger brother Jonathan in horrifying fashion because Richard, India's father, paid more attention to Jonathan than Charles.

After that incident, Richard sent Charles off to a mental institution to be locked away. On the day of India's 18th birthday, Charles is released from the institution, neatly fitting my thesis as noted above. Richard attempts to send Charles off to New York City, giving him a car, cash, and keys to an apartment there.

All of this can fit my thesis. Charles' murder of Jonathan illustrates the selfish, all-consuming nature of our reproductive urge. Think of Richard Dawkins' classic book titled The Selfish Gene. That Charles is selfish and psychotic is not so strange for anyone who has ever experienced the throes of sexual desire.

Richard's attempt to send Charles away is a literal depiction of a time-honored ritual: a father trying to suppress or delay his daughter's sexual awakening. It's a losing battle, as all father find out, and at that moment of India's 18th birthday, Charles rebuffs the bribe from Richard and murders him. [If you are the father of a girl, this might not be the best movie to see, especially with your daughter.]

India proceeds to grow closer to Uncle Charles and her own sexuality, but she must master it and avoid becoming a sexual rival to her mother, who catches Charles and India becoming intimate. Charles then attempts to strangle Evelyn. All sexual rivals must be eliminated. But here is where India recalls the lessons taught her by her father to master her sexuality. She fetches the hunting rifle, remembers that shooting lesson with her father, who represents family, among other roles, and shoots Charles dead. Her transition to adulthood is complete.

It's no coincidence, I believe, that India leaves for New York City in the car Richard had given Charles. New York City was where Richard had wished to send Charles, and the city has long been the symbolic destination where people's adult dreams content with the reality of the real world, in addition to being a city that swallows naive young women.

India will be okay, though. A girl who has mastered her sexuality has immense power, and the movie ends with a graphic demonstration of it. No authority figure and no social institutions or hierarchy can contend with the power of female sexuality. India is pulled over by the sheriff for speeding, and she stabs him in the neck with garden shears. As he crawls off into a field, his spurting blood coloring white flowers with red (again, a vivid image of a women's first sexual intercourse), India follows after him with a rifle.

Wasikowska is cast perfectly because she has a certain quality of alienation, an introversion, a way of carrying herself, that is not overtly sexual. This allows her sexuality, and the story, to sneak up on us.

Was it Chan-Wook Park and/or Wentworth Miller's intention to tell a story of a girl's sexual awakening? Only they know for certain. I have not found any articles online in which either explicitly acknowledge this. Based on all the evidence, though, I strongly suspect the confusion on the part of many critics would be cleared up if viewing the movie through this lens.

One last bit of tidy symmetry. In Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, the connection between the characters that became India and Uncle Charles was even more explicit. In Hitchcock's classic, the young girl is named Charlotte but her nickname is Charlie. A very  intentional echo of the name of her Uncle Charlie.