South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s filmmaking always dances a fine line between sublime and absurd genre ingredients. “Stoker,” his first American-set, English language picture, is no exception. It’s tempting to resist describing the movie in terms of the cinematic traditions it calls to mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” meets “Heathers,” Park’s creepy tale of a peculiar family wrapped up in murderous antics continues the twisted pleasures that define the director’s filmography.
Shot in Nashville, the movie revolves around the affluent Stoker family, thrown into sudden turmoil when patriarch Richard (Dermot Mulroney) dies in an apparent car accident coinciding with the 18th birthday of his treasured daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). Stuck in their secluded mansion with her demanding mother (Nicole Kidman), India retreats into her grief, shunning the outside world. But her aggressive mourning period is interrupted by the arrival of her enigmatic Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) — the same name as the menacing figure who materializes in the aforementioned Hitchcock movie — as he claims to have been traveling the world for the duration of his niece’s life. Both drawn to Charlie’s piercing eyes and intimidated by his continuing attempts to befriend her, India grows intrigued by his mysterious past once the man decides to move in with them.
This being a Park movie — albeit one scripted by actor Wenwtworth Miller — depraved urges and grotesque outbursts linger around every turn, but Park’s formalism positions the mayhem within an alluring cinematic tapestry. As India develops a violent streak, Park frequently cuts to extreme close-ups of unsettling images ranging from a blood-stained pencil to a spider slowly crawling across India’s stockings. Something isn’t right about her uncle, but India’s own sanity is equally hazy.
It doesn’t take long to establish Charlie’s morbid tendencies with a series of violent incidents that the lunatic doesn’t bother hiding from India. As the body count rises, she’s drawn to the transgressive nature of murder, an impulse at first implied and then later writ large in a memorable bit that finds India sexually aroused after witnessing a gruesome act up close. Park masks the absurdity of these events with a typically enthralling style, particularly a series of sleek tracking shots calculated to draw viewers into each unsettling moment. Largely set at night or against grey skies, “Stoker” (photographed by usual Park collaborator Chung-hoon Chung) maintains the feel of a gothic fairy tale in the tradition of his gory family vampire drama “Thirst” rather than “Oldboy” or his two “Vengeance” movies.
It’s also, like “Thirst,” more blatantly an exercise in style than anything on par with the director’s crowning achievements, and suffers to some degree from the predictability of its premise. By the time India undergoes a transition that allows her to come out of her shell, “Stoker” has traded emotional impact for pure shock tactics, lessening its overall effect. But even then the movie provides an amusing showcase of grimly powerful performances: Wasikowska stands out for her ghoulish delivery, but Kidman’s unstrung character further demonstrates her increasingly strange career path, while Goode comes across as an enjoyably deadpan maniac.
Even a lesser Park movie stands above most genre indulgences for the sheer bravado involved in taking wacky subject matter so seriously. “Stoker” may not break new ground, but it stands firmly on an effective toolbox right through its zany finale. Ultimately a subversive take on family bonds, the movie puts a wry twist on the coming-of-age mold. When India’s mean-spirited mother tells her daughter she “can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,” the putdown comes too late: For India, taking life into her own hands means tearing it apart herself.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Fox Searchlight plans to release “Stoker” later this year. The appeal of the cast, Park’s genre cred and the apparent marketplace potential for smart horror demonstrated by last year’s success of “Sinister” bode well for the movie’s performance in limited release.