Chan-wook Park, the much-loved director of the Vengeance Trilogy arrives to America with Stoker, his English-language debut that allows him to explore his stylish talents to heights yet unseen in his oeuvre. Though working with an original script by the actor Wentworth Miller (with Erin Cressida Wilson probably over-doctoring it), the story remains the film’s most glaring flaw. Even if the screenplay stood among the top 10 of the Black List of Hollywood’s most-desired unproduced scripts in 2010 (see the list), that does not make it immune to over-working the life out of it. The final third of the film dwells on cooked up motivations that are either over-explained or feel inconsistent, neutering the film of any thrill derived from the mystery established earlier. Thankfully, Park and the cast make up for it by over-delivering the atmosphere and style, keeping most of the film interesting if not riveting.
“To become adult us to become free” is the mantra in this giddy creep-fest. Spoken only once, early in the film, the notion permeates this twisted coming-of-age of young woman who seems to have a very unique relationship with death and its dealing … not to mention her uncle.
The vibrant, stylized film opens by establishing India Stoker (a quietly simmering Mia Wasikowska) as a primal nature girl. She plays alone and meditates not only among the trees and flowers of a sprawling backyard but also its wild weeds and cold boulders. The film soon reveals her dearly departed father had trained her to become a cold, patient hunter who knows how to wait out her prey. Her name alludes to the Native Americans— or if you will forgive a less-PC term: Indians— who had no sentiment for animals as cuddly things. Reasons for why a father would take his young child hunting is eventually revealed as misguided: “Sometimes you have to do something bad, so you don’t do something worse.” Lo, what a confused little girl he would raise.
Stoker works best as it lingers on India’s enigmatic behavior as a murder mystery unfolds when an uncle she never knew (a unnervingly stiff Matthew Goode) moves in with her all-too-recently widowed mother (Nicole Kidman toying with the edge of camp) to seemingly replace her recently deceased father. Like most thrillers, Stoker falls apart when it has to arrive at an end designed to reveal character motivations. Worse, sometimes the so-called reason behind behaviors feels inconsistent or under-explored. It is as if a writer had to tack on excuses that neutered the story.
Though some of the tied up ends undermine the best aspects of the characters’ mysterious qualities, the actors dive into their roles with delightful élan. When India’s mother introduces her daughter to her surprise uncle, she tries to place her hands on India’s shoulder and India recoils. The mother notes how India hates to be touched matter-of-factly but adds, “I’m her mother,” and Kidman loads her face with a pallet of conflict as frustration turns to surprise and then heart-break.
Goode is Stepford wife creepy as the mysterious Uncle Charlie. As India spies him laying down new pavers in the lawn from a second-story window of the New York Victorian mansion they live in, he turns to lock eyes with her. Without blinking, he says, “This really is a beautiful garden. The soil is soft. Good for digging.” He often condescends and patronizes her with a cold, wide-eyed smile. He’s a wonderful contrast to her pouty suspicious, down-turned glances and her cross-armed distance. Wasikowska invests India with a seething teenage malaise like a cartoon character out of Edward Gorey. While Charlie seems in the moment, focused and cunning, India maintains an ethereal, pensive distance. There are several extraordinary, silent scenes when the two are framed together for moments of rich, character-defining stillness.
Ultimately, the film’s hyper-stylization will redeem it for many viewers. Park knows framing and how to keep a film interesting with a supreme attention to detail. To remind viewers of India’s keen senses as a hunter, he ups the sound of her cracking a hard-boiled egg and the scrape of a wine glass on a table, which Charlie entices her with.
The film is also loaded with sly moments of mise-en-scène. There are dialogue-free montage sequences that delightfully amp the film’s sinister edge. For instance, after a worrying visit to the Stoker home, a particularly harried aunt (Jacki Weaver) checks into a rundown motel room. She sits in the corner of the room as the TV plays an animal documentary where two eagle chicks fight to the death over food. She does not look at the screen, as she seems more repulsed by her ratty bed. Her door outside happens to be numbered 111 in a font that makes the numbers look like claw marks. Joining her in a moment of synchronicity is Uncle Charlie who happens to have tuned in to the same TV program. A masterful moment of establishing a sense of foreboding that does not forget a sense of humor.
The acting and the film’s stylization, which also includes lots of brilliant color in an ironically decrepit mansion, rescues the film from entering camp territory, which it sometimes teeters a bit too close to. Ironically, the strain to explain motivation and the aversion of loose ends (i.e. pure mystery, and the truly eerie unknown) positions this film as something rather mediocre. It could have offered a dark statement on human nature, a la David Lynch. Instead, we get a sly movie that at least does not take itself too seriously but has a slavish tendency to reveal reason behind impulse, undermining its mysterious quality that it so brilliantly wallows in during its first hour or so.
Stoker is Rated R and runs 99 minutes. It opens in limited release across the U.S. Friday, March 22. In South Florida you can find it at AMC Sunset Place 24 in South Miami, Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach, and the Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale. Fox Searchlight Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.