This review was originally published on January 24, 2013…
The multi-talented Park Chan-wook does a lot of heavy lifting, and his cast is game to help out where needed, but they can’t push Wentworth Miller’s downright silly script for Stoker over the hill, resulting in a film that’s not just style over substance but is almost completely bereft of the latter. Style doesn’t just win out here, it smashes substance like a bug under a shoe. Generally, I don’t have much of a problem with films that could be dubbed exercises in style but I longed for Park’s talent to have a more complex and satisfying function here, as it does in his Vengeance Trilogy or Thirst. Those films were visual accomplishments but also held thematic depth worthy of discussion. The entirety of the discussion after Stoker can be summed up as, “Boy, that was kinda silly.”
It seems likely that Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Shadow of a Doubt was the creative starting point for Miller and not just because Matthew Goode’s malevolent killer happens to be named “Uncle Charlie.” Much like Teresa Wright’s character in the Hitchcock film, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) feels like she doesn’t belong. She’s always known she was a little bit different, mocked at school and capable of remarkable hearing (which allows Park to play with audio like a ticking metronome that’s abnormally loud to increase tension). On India’s 18th birthday, her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a car accident. At the funeral, her Uncle Charlie (Goode), who she never knew existed until that day, slithers onto the scene. He quasi-seduces his former sister-in-law Evie (Nicole Kidman), terrifies Auntie Gin (Jacki Weaver), and generally slimes up the place. Of course, India is drawn to him.
The depth of Charlie’s villainy isn’t kept secret for long by Miller and Park and the two have fun playing with questions of how India will respond. She’s never cared for her mother much and doesn’t fit in and so the illusion of a life spent with her globetrotting uncle naturally appeals to her. What’s Charlie’s past? Why does everyone fear him and why was his existence kept secret from India? At its best, Stoker plays like an old Hammer Film: The dark stranger come to the beautiful, rich family home to shake it up with a coat of blood. And Park is having a blast when he’s allowed to merely play with atmosphere, such as in a great scene in a phone booth with Weaver and another at a piano where incestuous tension between Charlie and India seems to be rising.
As much fun as Park has in the atmospheric, stylish moments of Stoker, the film sags when it’s forced to deal with that pesky thing called plot. Uncle Charlie’s secrets are rather obvious and, with hindsight, kind of nonsensical. The answer to why everyone was so afraid of him doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and I wished that Stoker had another twist or two and more thematic purpose. Park has proven in films like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance that he can merge action with complex dissections of responsibility, revenge, familial entanglement, and the ripple effect of violent action. None of that exists here and it feels like a wasted opportunity to give the director something meatier to chew on.
As disappointing as Stoker is compared to the rest of Park’s filmography, it is encouraging to see how well the director works with his first English-language ensemble. There’s not a weak player here. Wasikowska conveys a perfect mix of innocence and strength. She’s the girl who doesn’t talk to anyone but classmates fear her nonetheless. Goode is very memorable, finding that blend of suave sophistication and outright insanity that marked so many great villains over the years. Kidman & Weaver are memorable as well, the latter delivering more in a few minutes than her Oscar-nominated turn in Silver Linings Playbook.
There’s certainly something to be said for escapism and that’s the best way to enjoy Stoker. Don’t compare it to the more dramatically satisfying previous works from Park Chan-wook and don’t consider what could have been instead with a bit more screenwriting complexity. As an exercise in style, Stoker works, for whatever that’s worth.