Chilling, lurid, and moodily macabre, Stoker concocts unsettling visuals in an admirable attempt to hide an empty and predictable story. Instead of manic depravity, à la Killer Joe (deserving comparison with Stoker for their bleak and violent leanings), or true spontaneity, Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst) chooses rigid stylization.
India (Mia Wasikowska, The Kids Are All Right) is a troubled and isolated girl who suffers from a double-barreled dose of bad parenting luck: her father is dead and her mother (Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Rabbit Hole) is nihilistically frigid. India is introduced to her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode, A Single Man), who takes mother and daughter on a dark and vengeful journey of death and mayhem.
Interestingly, Park’s directorial approach – along with select performances – are actually the film’s strongest elements. Park brings operatic finesse to generic material. With the addition of Wasikowska, it passes the threshold of acceptable. It plays like a dementedly Gothic fairy tale, menacing and mercurial, a perverse riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.
But despite its sinister atmosphere, Stoker does not generate suspense as effectively as it would appear. It is sometimes silly, sometimes ludicrous, and always uneven, courtesy of Wentworth Miller’s screenplay. I was shocked to remember that it ranked #5 on the 2010 Black List. Worse than this is the sense that Stoker is filled with less: it seems pointless, lifeless, meaningless, a vacuous exercise in shock cuts and oft-kilter compositions.
I heartily encourage Mr. Park to return to Korean cinema, where he has made some of the most memorable foreign films of the past decade. I am quite certain, however, that even Stoker will have more daring and bite than Spike Lee’s inevitably dull remake of Oldboy, arriving later this year.