*Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.*
One could argue there’s nothing subtle about the movies made by South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, the director behind “Oldboy,” including the celebrated ‘Vengeance Trilogy‘ and the loopy vampire movie, “Thirst.” Violence reigns in his films, cameras pirouette like self-conscious characters in his ensemble, and style is king. But in the past, especially in “Oldboy” and “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance,” his penchant for the outrageous and over-the-top always included sublime, comically brutal and sometimes even emotionally devastating conclusions that could leave the jaw agape. Style was always in service of a story and characters.
But all his worst tendencies for the histrionic and overly operatic are on utterly garish display in the overwrought and tonally poisoned “Stoker.” There’s myriad problems evinced within the picture, starting with a familiar and often painful script by Wentworth Miller that holds no mystery, suspense or surprise (or at least that’s how it’s constructed on screen, which is odd for a thriller). Stylized to death, “Stoker” is so hermetically sealed and clinical in its visual presentation that it sucks what little life it possesses out of the room with the repeated violent woosh of unnecessary swish pans. Worse, the movie carries plenty of random and absurd nonsense that doesn’t seem to fit.
The talented Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a sullen, Emily The Strange goth caricature who’s special. She hears what others don’t, but the film can’t decide if it means that literally or figuratively in her opening expository voiceover. Coming from a family of wealth and means, life changes suddenly for India when her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), dies suddenly and mysteriously. Her chilly mom, Evie (Nicole Kidman), is in mourning for about 30 seconds, and then at the funeral a long-lost uncle that India never knew she had, Charlie (Matthew Goode), materializes out of nowhere. Oily and unctuous, Goode and the film pretty much make no bones about the fact that this creepy figure is the antagonist of the picture, and therefore likely involved in the no-one-can-explain-it “accidental” death of her father. The post-funeral sequences are the most painful, if only because every whispered line of dialogue from the gossipy maids and guests serves to be the most obvious and overt form of exposition.
As the superficially charming and overly-lousy Charlie (who has a creepy pederast smile on his face for the entire movie) inveigles his way into their home, India sulks. And when Charlie and Evie flirt, drink wine and go off on day trips together, India becomes suspicious and starts to dig around for little clues that will unveil themselves later in the film. Charlie wants to be friends with India, but the distrustful girl is not having it. At school, the introverted India is bullied by the uber-cliche asshole jock (Lucas Till), but luckily is saved by the slightly less cliché, sensitive Marlon Brando type (Alden Ehrenreich). Harmony Korine plays an art teacher for half a second for some reason. Aunt Ginnie (Jacki Weaver) shows up, seemingly desperate to talk to Evie in private, but soon she mysteriously disappears.
In a Hitchcock film, this murder would be accomplished with ominous hints, but in a Park Chan-wook film, she’s killed loud and clear by Charlie in bloody fashion (for some reason, Charlie seems fascinated with his dead brother’s belt, so this becomes his weapon of choice). While we’re here, let’s put a moratorium on violent, animal-kingdom-like footage on TV sets in the background moments before someone is obviously going to be killed. “Stoker” is like a teenager that can’t keep a secret and telegraphs every move from a mile away. And the film goes on and on like this, going from just plain silly and laughably absurd to cartoonish and excruciating in its final overkill act.
Victorian Gothic in flavor, “Stoker” is Hitchcock’s “Shadow Of A Doubt” on the type of steroids that make WWE wrestlers murder their families out of nowhere. This is not a compliment. Beyond being ridiculous, logic just seems to fail “Stoker” at times. The Stoker family lives in a magnificently-kept mansion, but their basement where the ice-cream is stored is apparently the dungeon from some “Saw“-esque horror movie, awash with freaky lights and all. Why Nicole Kidman’s lounging room looks like the botanical garden from a David Lynch movie is a mystery. And why she announces out of nowhere that she’s going to the hair dresser’s and then comes back with a shorn hairdo is a riddle for the ages that will never be solved.
When the movie is still somewhat of a mystery, India discovers the head of the maid in the freezer — the same maid that she saw Charlie threatening earlier in the movie, but of course, she doesn’t say anything (uhh…). Early on, Evie tells India she’s teaching Charlie beginner piano, but the girl doesn’t flinch two scenes later when she and Charlie are having their (rather hilarious) Chopin-esque piano-off. Alden Ehrenreich’s good-guy character inexplicably becomes Lucas Till’s asshole character and tries to rape India, seemingly because the script couldn’t figure out how to place Till’s character at the scene. Magically, Charlie appears to rescue her, and the brutal killing of the teenager is the point-of-no-return moment where the film goes from bad to downright terrible (we won’t totally spoil it, but after this sequence India is involved the most ludicrous, unintentionally hysterically funny masturbation scene we’ve ever seen).
“Stoker” is beyond help at this point, and only gets worse as Charlie’s true backstory is revealed. The logic goes out the window, and the visual chaos and soapy melodrama overwhelm the offended senses. While “Stoker” is full of good actors (Kidman and Wasikowska in particular), no one has anything to do but scowl, glower or smile like they just got out of the loony bin. The risible “Stoker” is a brutally empty, deeply unfortunate movie, and Park Chan-wook’s jackhammer of a tool he calls a brush is, on this evidence, something that should be locked away. [D-]