Families can often be the source of much pain and grief in most people’s lives. Our families help to shape our personalities in a way that little else can, and they can also be the source of many mental health and personality disorders. It’s for this reason, among others, that it is unethical for mental health professionals to provide therapy for their own family members. Families can bring just as much, if not more, heartache as they do joy to our lives. Sometimes, the dysfunction is learned and internalized. Other times, it’s inherited, and no amount of nurturing can quell this side effect of nature. In Stoker, we get a glimpse of the latter, of how family members, even those whom we aren’t close to, can pass down the very worse traits of their nature to us.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), are incredibly close. India is intelligent and reserved, and her father is not only her best friend, but the only friend she has. When he dies in a car accident on her 18th birthday, India, though not as vocal as her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), feels the pain of his loss much more deeply. In the wake of her father’s death, Charlie (Matthew Goode), a younger brother whom Evelyn and India never knew Richard had, comes to their home, proclaiming that he will stay as long as necessary to help his niece and sister-in-law process their grief. Incredibly charming, but equally secretive, Charlie wins over Evelyn, who is openly flirtatious with him, but fails to pull the wool over wary India’s eyes.
Something is very wrong with Charlie, and when everyone who disagrees with or distrusts him, including India’s great-aunt, Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), comes up missing, and Charlie’s stories about what he’s been doing for the last 18 years are filled with holes, India’s suspicions rise. Those suspicions are quickly proven correct when her uncle murders a classmate in front of her. But rather than shock and petrify India, the murder arouses her, which is precisely the reaction that India’s predatory uncle wanted.
As India delves deeper into Charlie’s story, she is also forced to confront the truth about herself, and the darkness within. As she discovers more about her uncle’s violent sociopathy, her mother’s deep-seated jealousy of her, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her father’s death, she must come to terms with who she truly is, and make the choice to either resist, or give in.
Though slow in some areas, Stoker expertly portrays two things. The first is the relationship between narcissistic parents and their children, specifically mother and daughter, and how those relationships only become more toxic without a “buffer” parent to placate and distract both parties. India isn’t the only person spiraling and her mother’s behaviour, self-centered to the point of recklessness, only makes her more blind to Charlie’s toxicity and gives him greater influence over her daughter. The second thing that Stoker does well is accurately depict how grooming works. Grooming isn’t necessarily something always done to small children. Though India is 18 and legally an adult when she meets Charlie, he is still using his more advanced years to manipulate her at the height of her grief for her father, and abusing his position as her uncle to do so. India in turn is not repelled by Charlie, just the opposite, and this is also valid, to display that grooming is insidious because it’s a form of abuse that victims don’t always readily recognize. Predators like Charlie make it a point to get to know, show interest in, and even protect their prey from other abusers. But it makes what they’re doing no less wrong, and perhaps even more so, because they make someone who’s hungry for love and affection believe that this is what they’re getting.
Though Stoker could have been better developed, it is the rare psychological drama that is just true-to-life enough to make audiences uncomfortable and keep them thinking, without being graphic or capitalizing on trauma in order to captivate. All of the cast performances are stellar and perfectly capture the essences of the each character. With Stoker, the lingering lesson is that you can protect a person from just about everything, except themselves.
I give this one 4 stars.