A key in line in the sleek new psychological thriller Stoker avers, “Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.” Stoker isn’t exactly bad—in fact, it’s worth seeing—but one could imagine director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) comforting himself with the same advice, as he muddles through the American system and resists selling out.
Park doesn’t take a writing credit on Stoker (it’s scripted by Wentworth Miller, who’s better known as an actor), but the film screams “Park Chan-wook!” in its sight-and-sound trappings. The man is a stylist, and Stoker can be bracing simply for being so out of step with most domestic films that we see. And yet there’s a whiff of desperation in the film’s aesthetic inventions, suggesting Park’s efforts to distract from a script that doesn’t quite make it.
Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) plays India Stoker, an eighteen-year-old who narrates, “To become adult is to become free.” She’s itching to play in the behavioral big leagues, though emotionally stunted by the recent death of her father in a car accident. All is not well at home, where India’s mother (Nicole Kidman) allows a new houseguest and begins cozying up to him even as he cozies up to India. It’s her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who fulfills a wolfish archetype dating back beyond the Uncle Charlie of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.
Where Shadow of a Doubt provides a jumping-off point, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula a thematic touchstone (in the perniciousness of bloodlines), it’s the craftwork of David Lynch that seems to be on Park’s mind as he strikes ground in America. An insect motif evokes Blue Velvet, a violent nature doc on a motel TV nods to Wild at Heart, and much of the rest pays homage to Twin Peaks: comical high-school toughs (including a biker teen at a roadhouse), the threat of incest, crossing train tracks to a dangerous woodsy rendezvous, dreamy ceiling-to-floor drapes, and frequent close-ups of saddle shoes, as a signifier of innocence on the cusp of sexual awakening.
Park’s skills for surreal subjectivity and the mischievously weird certainly don’t hurt, but they can’t quite banish Stoker’s narrative speed bumps and draughts of cold air as the film bluntly denotes the compulsive correspondence of orgasm and murder, and nastiness by inheritance (evoking The Bad Seed). The women’s waywardness of thought and feeling comes off as unfortunately regressive, though the stoking of India’s inner life will lead her either to her dead father’s “openness, honesty and integrity” or his brother’s eagerness to sin.
Despite its deficiencies, this moody symbolist thriller is not for a second less than engaging. Credit delicate work by Wasikowska and Goode, and Park’s strategy to design every composition, camera move, and edit to keep the audience off-balance (plus: newly composed Philip Glass piano duets). Who knows: maybe this movie that asks “What kind of family is family you can’t take home?” can be a rally point for dysfunctional broods needing to let off a little “at least we’re not as bad as all that” steam.
[This reviee first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]