Gamal Hassan: “Stoker’s plight: Is Murderous Instinct Nature or Nurture?”

A review of the film “Stoker” USA 2013 directed by Park Chan-Wook

Mental illness and its impact on individuals and families have inspired film-makers from all around the world. “Stoker” directed by the visionary film maker Park Chan-Wook (of “Old boy” fame, is a family drama with a different twist.

The story starts with the sexual awakening of a troubled teenager India (Mia Wasikowska) who is grieving her father’s death (Dermot Mulroney), and has a passive-aggressive relationship with her mother (Nicole Kidman). The arrival of Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) at her father’s funeral only adds to India’s feelings of detachment and estrangement. Through a series of flashbacks, long hidden secrets are slowly revealed; Uncle Charlie has just been released from a mental health institution where he was in custody since early childhood. As soon as he enters the family home, it is clear that he has a hidden vendetta, which he is determined to execute. Showing features of antisocial personality disorders, he starts a killing spree eliminating anyone standing in the way of his demands.

It is known that there are strong associations between crime and people with “antisocial personality disorders (APD)” (1), especially those who abuse alcohol or drugs (2). The prevalence of “antisocial personality disorders” has been studied in various parts of the world, but some areas have an unusually higher prevalence than others; in Baltimore, Newhaven and St Louis in the USA, the overall lifetime prevalence has been quoted as 1.5-3.2 percent (3).

Several aetiological theories have attempted to explain APD, and those ranged from psychodynamic, behavioural, molecular genetics, biological to socio-cultural theories, with a multi-factorial role being more prominent in affected individuals and their enigmatic minds.

What is extraordinary and in some instances “scary” about the violent crimes committed by APD individuals either in fiction or reality, is the apparent superficial normality of those individuals; they can lead an undetected harmless existence in communities. Such examples exist in biblical, historical and more recent accounts; from Cain and Able story in Genesis, to Denis Andrew Nilsen account of gruesome murders in 1983 (4), to the revelation of the series of murders committed by Dr Harold Shipman in 2000 (5).

“Stoker” is gripping viewing; the three lead actors give an all-round performance, the tight editing, and masterful cinematography all make the film a visual treat. However the great technical and artistic skills on display do not hide the fact that the characterization lacks a sense of belief, making it hard to empathize with this disturbed family. By using a menacing tone of “suspense” throughout the film, “Stoker” sheds no light on the background of “Charlie”, and by doing so the viewer is required to fill in the gaps in his story. There is a temptation to attribute acts of violence to one set of circumstances. However reality is much more complicated than the “one cause results in one effect” approach.
By portraying murder as a random act detached from morality or logic, any possible aetiological aspects of mental illness are dismissed for the sake of “cinematic ploy”. In an attempt to understand, but not to justify, murderous instincts, it may be argued that murderers experience fulfilment and satisfaction in having the ultimate power in human interactions by annihilating others. The cold-blooded gruesome murders in “Stoker” make an intriguing entry into the “Hall of shame” of fictional APD individuals. The family traits in “Stoker” and their links to murderous instincts pose a question whether this instinct is due to “nature” or “nurture”. A straight forward answer may never be reached.

Review by: Dr. Gamal Hassan, MBBch, MRCPsych, Consultant Psychiatrist.

Address for correspondence:


  1. ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, Churchill Livingstone 1991.
  2. Oxford textbook of Psychiatry 1998.
  3. Examination notes in Psychiatry. Peter Buckley, published by Butterworth- Hinemann 1999.
  4. Brian Masters, The case of Dennis Nilsen, Arrow Books 19955.




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