Visual semiotics breed psychosexual titillation in "Stoker," the American debut of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (2003's "Oldboy"). Partially inspired at the onset by Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 thriller "Shadow of a Doubt" before veering a radical left turn, the film, written by actor Wentworth Miller, seemingly exists in a timeless time warp where the modern-day meets the gothically period, its characters trapped in a self-contained bubble that begins to crack as temptations and dark human natures are brought to blood-spattered life. Old-fashioned and not entirely unexpected, "Stoker" doesn't work very well as a mystery, but garners a creeping intrigue all the same as the many faces of teenaged protagonist India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) are revealed.
When her beloved father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), is killed in a car accident on her 18th birthday, India is faced with now living alone with a trophy mom, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who has never exactly been the motherly type. First spotting him from afar at the funeral, then later at the reception, India is taken aback with the news that she has an uncle she never knew abouther dad's younger brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode). Opting to stay put for a bit and put his exotic European life on hold, Charlie quickly ingratiates himself to Evelyn as India grows ever more suspicious yet uncontrollably drawn to him. When the housekeeper, Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville), goes missing, followed shortly after by visiting Aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), India's knowledge of who's responsible awakens inside of her a part of her psyche that's long sat dangerously idle.
A birthday gift, lavishly wrapped in yellow ribbon, sitting atop a tree branch. At first glance, it appears to be empty. Upon closer inspection, it contains a mysterious key. A spindly-legged spider crawling across the floor and up India's stocking as she sits at the kitchen table. Evelyn's silky brushed hair transforming into the strands of a wheat field. An insect rolling a tiny stone across the dirt like a boulder, reminiscent of the larger rocks Charlie has begun placing in the Stoker yard for reasons possibly too devious to comprehend. Director Park Chan-wook and his cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon, outdo themselves with "Stoker," nearly every shot emanating a delectably classy sheen. Lighting is rich and moody, as in scenes set in the family cellar, and another highly Hitchcockian set-piece involving a phone booth outside a motel, while the full-throttle orchestral score by Clint Mansell (2010's "Black Swan
") proves effectively edgy.
As gorgeous as it all looks and sounds, the pacing is on the elegiac side, taking a little too long for the story's revelations to catch up to viewers who will know the very second Uncle Charlie shows up that he's not to be trusted. With his dangerousness never really in question, it is the details of his past and his relationship with India where director Park Chan-wook attracts curiosity. A piano duet between the two is awash in eroticism, while flashbacks filling in Charlie's childhood and the events leading to Richard's death years later are placed with care through the narrative to parallel India's own personal awakening. In a film that is, to be polite, emotionally frosty, the question finally arises: who should we be rooting for? Maybe no one, or maybe, just maybe, the participant one least expects to at the start.
Mia Wasikowska (2012's "Lawless
") prolifically appears in nearly every scene, much of the story told through her eyes and imaginings. Her casting as India couldn't be any better, the actress charged with the ability to equally say so much without saying anything at all, and concealing a great deal behind the walls of her physical being. It's this tightrope that Wasikowska walks as India, a prickly protagonist who's not exactly begging for sympathy. The handsome Matthew Goode (2010's "Leap Year
") has a somewhat easier job, but one that he does well: playing the bad guy while giving him an irresistible allure which proves mighty difficult for both of the Stoker ladies to resist. Perhaps most affecting and complicated of all is India's mother, Evelyn, a woman torn between a newfound taste of freedom after Richard passes and the bitterness of being abruptly left with so much to untangleincluding her own wasted life. Nicole Kidman brims with a sad emptiness and an underlying rage, the latter only revealing itself during a late scene between her and India that reverberates with the pain and tragedy of harsh truths finally spoken.
Visually speaking, "Stoker" is an immaculate thriller, each frame crafted with obvious attention and love. The plot, alas, is decidedly no match for this stylistic showiness, writer Wentworth Miller unsure of what he's trying to say but, in the home stretch, figuring a kitchen sink will do very nicely. If the film is less about outward substance and more about aesthetics, at least it has that going for it. Increasingly ominous until the final moments wrap around on themselves and deeper meaning seems to dissipate, "Stoker" curdles in the darkness of an adolescent's grotesque self-discovery.