Stoker

Director:  Park Chan-Wook
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney
Review: 3 stars (of five)

Stoker is not a satisfying moviegoing experience, which isn’t to say that it’s a bad piece of cinema. If you go to the movies expecting a story (and I generally do), you might feel underserved. But if you’re moved by style, performance and mood for their own sake, there’s much to like in this off-key, slow boil tale of suspense.

The basic plot: Eighteen-year-old India’s beloved father has died, and at the funeral, an uncle (Matthew Goode) whom she didn’t realize she had appears. He’s younger than the father, and handsome, and entirely creepy in a stares-from-across-the-room way. Insinuating himself into the grieving household, there seems to be a smoldering sexual tension between him and the self-possessed widow (Nicole Kidman). Yet he is clearly focused on India (Mia Wasikowska), who is introverted and cold to the degree that it’s shocking no one in this day and age is trying to medicate her. As the film progresses, relationships intensify, violence occurs, and the early sense that there’s something very wrong with Uncle Charlie bears fruit.

The pleasures in this film start with Park Chan-Wook’s quirky, off-kilter direction. He’s informed by Hitchcock, surely, but with more of an art film aesthetic. He used color, movement and, most particularly, sound to create a constant, low-grade discomfort. The three main characters are essentially as one-note as the descriptions above, yet the talented cast pulls out interesting shadings not so much with what the script gives them individually, but through their interaction with one another.

The story’s theme is stated in voiceover in the opening shots, as India tells us that we have no control over who we become, and that once we recognize this, we are free. The film, then, is the story of India’s emancipation from childhood and convention. But rather than being a typical tale of teen rebellion in which she discovers sex, drugs and rock and roll within MPAA-acceptable limits, here she’s deciding, ultimately, whether, and how, to embrace her inner sociopath. We realize pretty quickly that Uncle Charlie is a full-blown psychopath, and we come to suspect that India’s late father feared that the same bad seed had been planted in her. With the father gone, who is this quiet, affectless young woman going to be?

Where the film goes wrong, arguably, is with its failure to really satisfy in the most direct way. Emblematic of this is the title, Stoker, which is the name of the family in question. It’s also the name of one of the most famous writers in horror fiction, one indelibly linked with vampires. So for a horror/suspense film to invoke the name of one of the genre’s patron saints and provide no reason or payoff just feels like a mistake. You can’t quite figure out what they should’ve done with that title, but “nothing” wasn’t the answer.

The film crackles with sexual tension and subverted rage, but is discreet in bringing either fully to the screen. At times, we have questions about character and situation that would feel like plot holes in another film. And the filmmakers screw up remarkably with an early scene or two that suggest the connection between MIA and Charlie may be supernatural, an idea never followed up on at all.

I came out of the theater feeling like I’d seen something very well-made that might not be very good. My wife, as she is wont to do, put the whole review into two sentences: “I’m not sure I would recommend that film to anybody,” she said as we left the theater. “I’m really glad that we saw it.”