We continue our Psychopaths in Film series with a look at Stoker, a psychological thriller drama film from 2013 starring Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode and directed by Park Chan-wook, also the director of Oldboy.
The plot centres around the family of a recently deceased father and husband Richard, with the widow Evelyn played by Kidman and the daughter India played by Wasikowska. Matthew Goode plays Charlie, the unsettling brother of the deceased Richard who enters the picture on the day of the funeral, and starts wriggling his way into Evelyn and India’s life.
The film contains a fantastically subtle depiction of a psychopath by Matthew Goode as the composed but creepy brother. However, much as in one of our other films in the series, Sexy Beast, in this film you get two screen psychopaths for the price of one with the performance of Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker taking some surprising turns which the viewer may not anticipate.
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Something Seriously Amiss
From almost the very beginning the viewer will get a feeling that something is not right here in this intricately designed but creepy and tense setting. All three of the main leads give off unsettling signs and clues that something is amiss within their characters.
For a start Nicole Kidman’s Evelyn character does not seem to be grieving in the least for the recent loss of her husband and her almost immediate flirting with Matthew Goode’s Charlie character begins to annoy India. She removes her wedding ring in quick time and is happy to enagage in shopping trips and romantic dinners with Charlie seemingly from almost the very moment her husband is dead and buried at the funeral.
For her part the India character begins the film as a surly, moody, uncooperative and withdrawn character. She is hostile towards her mother in particular, ungrateful in response to generous gestures from others and seems to live in her own autistic world.
Much like the Hannibal Lecter character from the films we already covered, her answers to questions always seem aloof and indirect and it is difficult to get any cooperation out of her. Charlie attempts to make connections with her but she is initially mistrustful and hostile towards him. This dynamic later takes a few unexpected twists which make the film well worth watching.
However it is Matthew Goode’s Charlie character which is the most unsettling, as he arrives seemingly out of nowhere as the mysterious brother of the recently deceased Richard. He invasively burrows his way into the life of Evelyn and India, yet it appears Evelyn does not put up any resistance to this and is seemingly happy to move on immediately from the death of her husband.
The Mask of Sanity
There is probably not a more perfect depiction in film of what psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley called The Mask of Sanity than Matthew Goode’s portrayal of Charlie in Stoker. Cleckley referred to this mask as a psychological facade of normalcy that pathological characters must project to the outside world to conceal their true nature from others. Goode nails this performance to a tee.
Straight away the viewer will get the impression that something is not right with the Charlie character. He arrives as a youngish, handsome, seemingly well dressed and very articulate and composed man. His appearance is very slick and suave and he says all the right things at the right time. Everlyn is quickly taken in by his charm but the daughter India is less convinced.
However, there is always something about his demeanor which isn’t right; a creepiness and awkwardness that is masterfully portrayed by Goode. Everything about him looks and for the most part sounds right but there is still something the viewer feels is lurking under the surface.
The way he addresses Evelyn but also India in particular is invasive and inappropriate and some other relatives and helpers who are around start to express their concerns. Evelyn however seems happy to collude with this behaviour, suggesting some kind of unresolved issues around her relationship with India and her late husband that is alluded to but not fully drawn out in the film.
When some of these suspiscious people themselves go missing then the alarm bells really start to ring and you start to gradually see the mask of Charlie’s character fall as his behaviour and history are exposed. You start to see that the suave, urbane composure of Charlie is indeed a mask or a facade covering something very dark and sinister.
This is exactly the narrative that so many people who have been involved with a psychopath will detail, and exactly the mask that Cleckley was talking about in his book The Mask of Sanity. Click the link to check the price on Amazon.
Psychopaths expend an enormous amount of energy projecting this mask or persona to the outside world; an image of how they want others to see them. More intelligent psychopaths can create an extremely convincing mask, often coming across as the most refined, sophisticated, even graceful characters, much like the Charlie character.
They cannot possibly let this mask fall, as it would reveal who they really are – most often a fake, toxic character devoid of any real empathy, emotion or ability to connect. They need to cover this dark reality with a marsipan topping of superficial charm and charisma – of having it all and being able to do it all.
This is what reels people in like the Evelyn character and draws them into the midst of these psychopaths as they are seemingly perfect and have everything going for them without any flaws. Life seems effortless with them. At first. Until the mask starts slipping and you start seeing some of the more unsavory sides to their character they had cleverly kept hidden initially.
The film itself sublty leaks some of these contradictions and red flags out to more observant viewers to let them know there is something going on. Early on you see Charlie playing the piano with Evelyn, who implores India to join them, claiming that he is “a complete beginner”, yet later in the film he plays a masterful duet on the piano with India herself showing he is not a beginner at all.
Remember psychopaths are very chameleonic and can be whoever they need to be for each individual person they are manipulating in their lives. Charlie will be a beginner on the piano when it suits and he’ll be a master when it suits as well.
You also see the suspicions and fear of other people around the house and visiting relatives coming to the fore, though Evelyn seems intent on ignoring them. You see glimpses of arguments Charlie has with the housekeeper and you also see Jacki Weaver’s Aunt Gin character who is very much onto the fraud of the perfect character Charlie is trying to project.
When Evelyn mentions of Charlie’s supposed travels to Europe the last few years, we see Gin express “Europe?!”, knowing full well that this is a total lie and Charlie is not at all the jet setting sophisticated “man of the world” he has painted himself to be to Evelyn and India.
This facade later completely crumbles as India discovers a bunch of letters sent to her over the course of her childhood from Charlie, which up until this point she had not had access to. She opens them to discover a myriad of letters written to her from Charlie, ostensibly from his “travels” to different places all over the world.
She then also realizes that they were sent all sent from a mental institution and at this point the mask Charlie has been wearing is completely broken down as the film reveals him to be a deeply disturbed and violent person responsible for several deaths in the family.
Matthew Goode’s superb performance as well as the direction and narrative of the film brilliantly portray the Mask of Sanity that all psychopaths have to project onto the world; a mask that tries to tell everyone “I’m OK, I’m just a normal person like you”.
It shows how initially composed and convincing this mask can be but also that sooner or later it inevitably crumbles and you see the real disordered, chaotic inner world of the psychopath that is really lying underneath, with no ability to truly connect or empathize with people despite a glib or superficial charm they can initially give off.
As disturbing as Goode’s performance is, it is not the only disturbing performance in the film, as Mia Wasikowska gives him a run for his money in the psychopathic character stakes!
India as a Closet Psychopath
While much of the initial focus in Stoker is on Matthew Goode’s Charlie character and the weasling of his way into the family home, you also see a brooding performance by Wasikowska as the India character, with a sense that something is perhaps lurking under the surface with her too.
There is initially a sultry hostility and aloofness to her character, seemingly impervious to any kind of gestures of friendship or kindness and generally uncooperative with demands for help. But there can’t be too much to that, the viewer may think. Maybe just a moody teenager who just lost her father, right?
Wrong! The Charlie and India characters slowly begin to mingle more despite her intial resistance and as the plot unfolds you realize that the Charlie character is actually also bringing out the psychopathic traits in India’s character, which have laid dormant until now.
They go off on some bizarre and twisted adventures themselves and you start to see that there are some dark and depraved aspects to her psyche which Charlie has brought to the surface with his own psychopathy. You also start to see that despite his initial flirtations with Evelyn, India has always been his real target and as Evelyn realizes this, the full scale of the act he has been putting on becomes clear to her.
The plot takes an even more bizarre twist as India’s behaviour further escalates and Charlie’s manipulative scheming ends up backfiring on him in spectacular fashion. The films ends with India as a different person from the start, with her innocence seemingly lost in more ways than one.
Stoker is a fantastic study in the mask psychopaths and other disturbed people must wear on a daily basis to prevent others from seeing their true nature. It accurately portrays how much energy and deception is required to keep up this mask or pretense, and that inevitably all the lies that psychopaths must tell to keep this image up sooner or later backfire as people or events conspire to show the psychopath up for who they really are.