Park's "Stoker" An Icy Affair
Stoker -- Dir. Park Chan-wook (Fox Searchlight) -- 3 Stars
Park Chan-wook is one of several big Korean directors making their English-language debuts—Jee-woon Kim of “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” just released the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “The Last Stand,” and the thrillingly talented Joon-ho Bong has wrapped shooting on his new picture “Snowpiercer.” Park rose to prominence on the back of his “Vengeance Trilogy,” the second part of which, “Oldboy,” was a cracking success and is being remade by Spike Lee. Park’s own English-language debut, the gleefully overheated gothic potboiler “Stoker,” nods significantly to Hitchcock, but it has a style and strong performances that partially elevate it above other recent attempts to emulate the master of suspense.
With its funereal calm and measured pacing, “Stoker” initially seems a million miles away from the kinetic heat of “Oldboy.” Dig deeper, though, and this exercise in style is a pleasing evolution of Park’s visual palette. His eye for a shot and attention to detail occasionally border on the astonishing—combed hair dissolves into cornfields, a belt is drawn through trouser loops with painstaking deliberation, Nicole Kidman’s face contorts and stretches at weird angles. There’s a keen desire here for the viewer’s experience to be as tactile as possible—Park rejoices in leather, stone, and wine so red you can almost taste it, and he utilizes textures, colors, and a richness in the movement and composition of his shots that can’t help be pleasing on the eye.
Amid all this, the actual plot is almost irrelevant and doesn’t really kick into gear for a while. When it does, it’s pretty daft. India Stoker, well played by Mia Wasikowska—whose pale skin and luminous eyes receive much of Park’s most sustained attention—is a young girl, reserved and unpopular at school, whose father dies in a car accident. This precipitates the arrival at the funeral of his mysterious younger brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode). Charlie moves in with India and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and the relationship between daughter and uncle starts to develop in a sinister, vaguely sexual, and altogether unhealthy fashion.
There are various increasingly implausible plot twists and revelations that build up to an ending that must have seemed farcical on paper. It makes a kind of demented sense when allied to Park’s aesthetic, though, and the actors do a decent job of bringing some ludicrous material to life. Goode’s Charlie has a tan so perfect, his skin seems to glisten like a desert mirage, and he just about stays this side of creepy rather than being completely ridiculous.
It’s Wasikowska’s show, though, and she demonstrates again why she’s one of the current It girls of art house cinema, capturing excellently the gradual maturation of a repressed and standoffish adolescent. You can see why Park must have been so enamored of her face—it’s gigantic, as big as a dinner plate, but it hardly seems to move: Wasikowska can emote with the mere flick of an eyelash or twitch of the nose, and the camera can fix upon or glide around the brilliant, white surface of her face. She has the trick of being stunningly beautiful without obviously being so, a pretty uncommon trait among today’s actresses. Kidman, Jacki Weaver, and Dermot Mulroney all do good jobs in supporting roles, and the set, a big old house with many empty rooms and dark corners, winningly conjures up the gothic fairytales evoked in the movie’s title.
It’s just a pity then that the script couldn’t quite sustain the weight of Park’s directorial vision. A tale like this needs to veer off in directions we didn’t expect and give us a story worthy of the storytelling. Instead, “Stoker” is more interested in the inexorable fulfillment of the familiar ritual of the horror movie—ultimately a safe and unsurprising move. The reason Hitchcock was a genius was not his brilliance with a movie camera, but the fact that he was able to reinvent the same genre again and again. “Psycho,” which is directly referenced in “Stoker,” is just such a movie—it completely changes direction halfway through and shocks the audience out of the complacency with which they might go to see a “Hitchcock movie.” At the end of the day, “Stoker” doesn’t have the nous or the courage to do that, and so the comparison between the two films ceases to be a flattering one. This is fun but familiar—and that’s not scary.
—Staff writer Caleb J.T. Thompson can be reached at email@example.com.