'Stoker': Weird and mysterious
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Richard was so proud of India's hunting that he stuffed everything she killed," Nicole Kidman's Evelyn Stoker robotically intones as she handles a beautifully taxidermied avian specimen. She's speaking of her daughter's prowess to handsome, taciturn Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who's come to stay with Evelyn and India after the sudden death of India's father. This is a prospect that does not please the just-turned-18 India, not least because she never knew she had an Uncle Charlie before.
"Stoker" is the first English-language film directed by Park Chan-wook, the Korean director known for stylish and brutal thrillers such as "Oldboy" and "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance." While I am hardly an expert on Korean culture, I would venture to guess that none of Park's prior pictures were quite as referential, at least in this particular way, as "Stoker," which was scripted by the actor and writer Wentworth Miller ("Prison Break"). For, yes, the family name of "Stoker" derives from, we are meant to infer, that of the author of the vampire novel "Dracula," and Uncle Charlie ought to remind film buffs of "My Three Sons" -- no, excuse me, of Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Shadow of a Doubt." There's plenty more, too, including a "The Shining" nod that's not bad, and the movie's production design has a fantastic unstuck-in-time quality that carries resonances of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and maybe a couple of Wes Anderson movies for good measure. All the better to convey the phantasmagorical world of the quiet, hypersensitive India, who, now fatherless, has to find her place as both a woman and a Stoker family member.
When I call India "hypersensitive," I'm not kidding: She has sharper senses than anyone around her, and Park aims to convey her powers of perception with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to shooting and editing that uses freeze-frames, dizzying camera movement (sometimes tracking, sometimes handheld), dazzling contrasts of color, spectacular sleight-of-mixing-board sound work, and more. India's world is sure an odd one, all the more odd as various family members turn up expressing concern at Uncle Charlie's presence, and at the chilly way he holds ever-zombielike mom Evelyn in thrall. That those relatives wind up going missing soon after that is cause for concern as well.
Mia Wasikowska does remarkably disciplined work as India, and Park shoots her in a way that makes the bones of her statuesque body give as much of a performance as the actress herself does. Nicole Kidman is, unfortunately, less effective. Between her wax-museum visage and her studied affectlessness, she comes off like she's been trying to synthesize methaqualone in the family bathtub, and getting damn close to succeeding. Goode seems to enjoy his juiciest part in a while, all whippet-thin fake-bland menace. But the material itself, while aspiring to some level of misterioso, is about as blunt and obvious as the hammer that figures so prominently in Park's prior "Old Boy." As in the sexualized four-handed piece for piano shared by India and Charlie, for instance. There's also the slight matter of the movie's central fallacy, which is a belief that all a work of art needs in order to commune with The Irrational is merely to make no damn sense. Contrary to this belief, one does not achieve the condition of a cinematic fever dream merely by throwing all plausibility out the window and then putting a creepy Lee Hazlewood song on the soundtrack. It takes more than mere will to be effectively weird. Park tries his best, but the scenario lets him down. One hopes he'll be able to apply his virtuosity to a script that deserves it next time around in Hollywood.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.