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.
Mia Wasikowska (The Kids are All Right, Alice in Wonderland) stars as a beautifully wounded, post-Winona Ryder gothette named India Stoker (as in Bram Stoker, let’s all assume). India spends her days moping around her family’s isolated, sylvan Connecticut mansion. This place is really more Restoration Hardware than Southern Antebellum—but it’s none the less “gothic” for its antiseptic modern style. Amid the manicured lawns and well-chromed towel racks, India does her best Wednesday Addams in saddle shoes impression. Not that you could blame her all that much. Her beloved father has just been killed—on her 18th birthday no less—the victim of a tragic and violent car crash. Poor India, a brainy outcast under the best of circumstances, is now stuck with a couple of housekeepers and an emotionally frigid mother (Nicole Kidman) for company.
Relief, if that’s the word for it, appears one day in the form of India’s long-lost uncle Charles (Matthew Goode from Match Point and Watchmen). Make that her long-lost creepy uncle. We’re talking Tony Goldwyn in Ghost creepy. Or Tony Goldwyn in every other movie Tony Goldwyn is in creepy. Charles elects to stick around after his brother’s funeral. He divides his time between quietly seducing mom and generally loitering around young India—stalking her, really—all sinister, bug-eyed and faux charming. What’s this guy’s deal? Is he some kind of sex fiend? A vampire? A serial killer? Somebody spill the beans already!
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.