So much of Park Chan-wook’s new film functions as signifier — buttoned-up dresses, a spider crawling between the main character’s legs — but it’s to little if any resonant effect. Stoker is never dull, and it’s often quite arresting in its visual compositions. But unless your aesthetic tastes run to symbolism for its own sake, it’s also not a particularly satisfying bit of cinema.
As the movie opens, 18-year-old India (Mia Wasikowska, resembling a high-school version of Tuesday Addams) is mourning her father (Dermot Mulroney), recently dead from what all presume had been a fiery car accident. India offers the occasional voice-over that reveals she is without anchor, unsure and seeking self-discovery. Because she bonded with her father during their hunting trips together, his absence has only brought into sharp relief the void between India and her mother (a convincingly brittle Nicole Kidman).
The catalyst for India’s self-actualization arrives in the form of her father’s younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), who, after the funeral services, decides to move in with her and her mother. While the mother welcomes Charlie’s presence (for emotional and carnal reasons), India is leery of someone she never knew existed and yet fascinated by him.
Director Park (Oldboy) layers on imagery of birth, death and sexuality, all but making explicit the impulses that link India and Charlie. But when reference to the sexual tension between them is made in a piano duet that doubles as a moment of orgasmic ecstasy, or when India diddles herself in the shower while recalling a murder, the effect isn’t darkly comic or subversive; it’s laugh-out-loud silly.
Park uses tilted frames, motifs and close-ups to suggest the off-kilter mental state shared by his two subjects. There’s a sensual allure to the film — its clean and vivid cinematography, the sound when India slowly compresses a cracked hard-boiled egg on the table. But for all the hallucinatory images and auditory sensations, Park’s emphasis on style keeps his subjects at a distance. But so too does the script, which doesn't offer much in the way of story. Instead, it relies on the allure of its characters and the skill of the performers inhabiting those roles.
Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) is confident and mesmerizing, as are Goode and Kidman. Goode's Charlie has an alert, intense gaze, eerily placid smile and cat-like movements that seem designed to preserve energy. In this smooth killer, there are hints of the Hitchcock influence, particularly Frenzy (where the weapon of choice was a necktie; here it’s a belt). And like Hitchcock’s films, Stoker also boasts flashes of visual wit.
When India discovers the truth behind Charlie’s back story about being a world traveler, the effect is muted because she is already aware that he is a remorseless killer. By the end, she doesn’t undergo a transformation so much as embrace an identity that was years in the making — and that’s too short of a journey to be dramatically compelling.