Active Ingredients: Gothic pulpiness; Inventive, subjective camerawork
Side Effects: Obligatory twists; A bit thin on substance
South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut Stoker is a sleazy, unnerving Gothic melodrama pitched somewhere between a psychological thriller and a cheesy throwback horror film. It’s as highly stylized and visually dynamic as we’ve come to expect from the director of Oldboy, but it trades in the lugubrious tone and raw misery of Park’s less successful films for an elevated and irresistible luridness. If it’s also a bit thin on substance, well, it’s got other things on its mind.
Stoker stars Mia Wasikowska as India, a withdrawn, troubled and potential dangerous young girl mourning the death of her father. Since his sudden passing, the fog over India allows her to do little more than sit around her creaky old mansion of a house. She has nothing but disdain for cold and distant mother (a wicked Nicole Kidman) who, in India’s mind, has gotten over the death of her husband suspiciously easily. When her Uncle Charlie arrives, their fragile equilibrium is upended.
Park and actor Matthew Goode immediately sink their teeth into turning Charlie into an impossibly creepy, menacing presence right from the start. Uncle Charlie and India share a mysterious, unspoken connection and each seems to know what the other is thinking. The two quickly initiate a strange psychic power struggle. In a masterfully shot and edited sequence, Uncle Charlie and India slowly circle around each other at a party in the mansion. Without looking over her shoulder, India knows Charlie is lurking just behind her and Park uses the camera to literalize their strange dance of attraction and repulsion.
Much of their relationship, and even the name Uncle Charlie, is a clear nod to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but unlike that great film Stoker has little on its mind besides pure style. Park has extracted all the delicious pulpiness of the story’s setting and tone and heightened it to a delirious pitch. His approach, however, works perfectly. Park isn’t an empty stylist, but a filmmaker who knows how to internalize the emotions and mood of a piece into the form itself. There is true substance to the complex images Park creates, if not in the story itself. But no matter, Park and his trio of dedicated performers are having much too much fun to mind.