Elegant direction helps to elevate a lackluster screenplay, but a game cast play things a bit too cool for comfort in Stoker, a morbid inversion of Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt that marks the English-language feature debut of celebrated South Korean director Chan-wook Park, a competent visual stylist with a flair for mystery. Thematically, Park's eerie domestic drama fits nicely into his canon, though its distinctive lack of sympathetic characters keeps us at arm’s length from the action when we should be getting emotionally invested.
Teenage misfit India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is still grieving the recent death of her father when she receives an unexpected visit from her long-lost uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a worldly entrepreneur who’s been traveling to distant lands ever since she was born. As a young girl, India had a very close relationship with her beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney), a respected architect, but their frequent hunting trips into the deep woods left her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) feeling isolated and alone. After Richard dies unexpectedly, India’s mourning is cut short when Charlie shows up unannounced. Mistrustful of Charlie from the moment he arrives at her sprawling country home, India only grows more suspicious of him as his relationship with her mother seems to take on sexual undertones. Meanwhile, as India contends with a high-school bully (Lucas Till), an unusual key she received on her birthday could help her to unlock the secrets of her uncle and her own family’s unspoken past.
Moviegoers familiar with Park’s impressive filmography know that the man who brought us J.S.A.: Joint Security Area and Oldboy has a knack for turning out brutal mysteries with amazing visual texture. In Stoker, those skills are still in peak form; each camera movement has been perfectly calculated and each reveal exquisitely executed. Yet those technical achievements are ultimately wasted due in large part to a pair of mitigating factors -- the first of which is Wentworth Miller's compelling yet flawed screenplay. An ambitious piece of writing that flirts with numerous intriguing concepts regarding family and fate, it draws us in with a poetic preface and a brooding mystery, but lacks the emotional nuance to make either resonate. His exploration of the ways we're all essentially composites of our ancestors, and that all it takes is a "key" to unlock our true selves, no doubt has immense promise when folded into the story of a deeply dysfunctional -- and wealthy -- family. Sadly, the fact that the most sympathetic person is dead before the film even starts (while another likeable character is soon to follow), makes it virtually impossible to connect with Stoker. Second, while it’s understandable that India might seem emotionally distant following such a trauma, the talented Wasikowska overplays the disaffected nature of her mourning with such stoicism that it blunts her story’s emotional impact. Likewise, as her character's frustrated, wine-swilling mother, Kidman nearly careens into high camp, never coming off as even remotely human until she unleashes a tirade that would chill the blood of even a detached teen like India.
Despite his script's shortcomings, however, Miller's adroit sense of pacing plays well to Park's strengths in sustaining tension -- ensuring that the audience remain squarely where the writer and director want them to be for most of the film's running time -- and the major reveals are difficult to see coming since Miller skillfully plays his cards close to his chest. For that reason alone, inquisitive viewers are likely to savor the challenge of piecing together the many tantalizing clues; if only we had a reason to care, they might actually manage to shake us up, instead of leaving us as cold as the frosty corpse stuffed in the Stokers’ basement freezer. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan