Director Chan-wook Park, still mostly known in the States for having written and directed Oldboy, returns to his vengeance-laden comfort zone for Stoker, his first English-language film. There is plenty to like about it, but there’s perhaps an equal amount that disappoints. It’s an odd vehicle driven with stylish grace when it’s not grinding up against the guardrails of the painfully obvious, taking one or two wrong turns before finally arriving at a destination that might not justify the length of the journey.
After the sudden and tragic death of her father, India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) estranged uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) –– whom she has never met –– decides to move in with her and her aloof, capricious mother (Nicole Kidman). A recluse and a pariah at school, India slowly and reluctantly becomes infatuated with Charlie’s unusual class and charm. But the longer he stays, the more she comes to suspect that not everything about him is what it seems.
The film begins promisingly enough. A beautiful sequence with lyrical images, startling editing, and a suitably nebulous narration introduces the audience to the film’s elegant style. Park demonstrates India’s unusually heightened senses with memorable instances of sights and sounds that succeed remarkably in evoking even the most imperceptible graze of a spider’s footfalls on clothed skin. This intriguing focus on the everyday sensations of India’s life is crucial to the plot, though they seem to wander from the mind when more distracting plot points arrive. The acting is high caliber, with Mia Wasikowska turning in a particularly excellent performance and Nicole Kidman, dependable as ever, memorably makes the most out of her few scenes.
The problem is that the film suffers from a debilitating obviousness regarding Charlie’s character. Within the first few seconds of his introduction, it becomes readily apparent that he’s repulsively creepy to anyone with a functioning set of eyes. What he says and how he says them tend to be more normal than not, but his vacant, unblinking stare and disconcerting perpetual smirk scream “serial killer” so loudly he might as well have said, “I’m Charlie. I kill people.” Even accepting that India’s mother would let a man she’s never met move in mere days after her husband’s funeral just because he’s pretty, it’s extremely difficult to swallow the idea that she somehow does not find Charlie unsettling. A man who cooks dinner every night, serves himself a plate, and then never takes a bite should inspire at the very least some level of discomfort, no? It’s bizarre, too, that despite the sudden skyrocketing body count in such a small community, nobody seems to have any real suspicion of the only new person in town.
Perhaps it’s a bit petty to nitpick on issues of plausibility in a film by a director who likes to incorporate aspects of fantasy, but Stoker comes so close to being a brilliant and believable character study of a troubled young girl that these eyebrow-arching elements detract heavily from the experience. When the film concerns itself with India, it’s difficult to find any flaw. There is a poetry of images and a delicacy of ambiguity regarding her psychology that is fascinating and engaging. But anything pertaining to Charlie is just perplexing, culminating in a reveal of his backstory that feels utterly nonsensical.
Stoker is that odd case of a film that, despite it’s obvious worth, ends up being less satisfying than films with more modest ambitions. Perfectly balanced between one brilliantly depicted protagonist and another sloppily concocted one, the film constantly struggles to overcome the burden of the latter. Though the ending is a good one, the film itself leaves much to be desired.