Directed by South Korean master Park Chan-Wook and written, oddly enough, by former “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller, Stoker is a bleak, black, blood-spattered coming-of-age tale. This hyper-gothic thriller is one ravishing and confusing chimera—as if Terrence Malick had directed an episode of “Dexter” written by Charlotte Brontë. It’s lurid, eerie and stylish as all get-out. And apt to drive mainstream audiences crazy.
Stoker is heavy—one might even say leaden—with symbolism, portent and impenetrable “meaning.” After threatening to reveal some deep, dark secrets for most of its run-time, Stoker finally delivers some late-in-the-game freakiness. The result works in context, but is somewhat less than the supernaturally potent something-or-other most viewers are reasonably expecting.
This is Park’s first English-language film, so maybe it’s no surprise to see him favor visual style over story-based substance. In the past, Park has proved himself an absolutely stunning filmmaker. Go hunt down his earlier masterpieces Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and the luminously dark Lady Vengeance for proof. His ability to turn moods on a dime (or something even smaller—a kopeck, maybe?) is legendary. But he has dropped the ball on occasion. (His 2006 “comedy” I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK was mighty pointless.) Here, Park’s compositions, transitions and camera angles are marvels to behold. But the script is just a hot mess. Stoker’s swiss-cheese plot goes off the rails—regularly, violently and, at the very least, unapologetically. There is a certain symmetry to the story, but it hinges on the logic of an old Grimm’s fairy tale and not that of a modern Hitchcockian thriller.
When applied to literature, the word gothic refers to “a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious or violent incidents.” That pretty well sums up Stoker in a nutshell. The gothic atmosphere is enveloping. But it’s constantly in danger of smothering the audience. Stoker is too calculated, too posed, too hermetically sealed to really come to life. It’s as if the entire movie has been taxidermied and placed under a glass cloche—which, in a way, fits the tale. But in another, more immediate way, it keeps the audience at arm’s length. Some will admire the film’s overtly abnormal, proudly ponderous and magnificently overstylized take on art house horror. Others will be left scratching thier heads wondering what kind of madness they just witnessed.