It’s certainly no coincidence that Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), the enigma at the center of Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, shares the name of the murderous uncle in Hitchcock’s classic Shadow of a Doubt. That’s not all the films have in common; both take place in seemingly idyllic, isolated communities (the family’s house is less a home than an island), and leave us with the impression that quiet evil can lurk behind every door and around every corner. But from an emotional standpoint, Stoker is like an inversed Shadow. In that film, a young woman who loves her uncle unlocks his past and is repulsed. In this one, a young woman who loathes her uncle unlocks his past, and responds with a bit more moral ambiguity.
That young woman is India (Mia Wasikowska). The story opens on her 18th birthday, which is made markedly less mirthful by the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney) in a car accident. As she and mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) mourn, there is a family visitor: Uncle Charlie, whom India never even knew existed. He has been traveling the world. He is here to help comfort them. Evelyn, especially, seems to need a lot of comforting from the handsome Charlie.
More than that I will not say, except to note that fans of Park’s biggest hit, Oldboy, will be unsurprised to learn that there are secrets to be told and implications to be wrestled with. Stoker marks Park’s English language debut, and on a very basic level, it’s just plain fun to watch — almost perversely so, considering what often we’re looking at. From the opening credits, which jar us with shock freezes and nature photography that seems suspicious of its beauty, there is a freedom to his filmmaking; he’s trying things, odd moods and unexpected edits and unconventional compositions. He’ll trot out a left-field cut, an off-balance camera move, or a peculiarly manipulated sound effect — he likes to keep things popping, and you can’t help but respond to the wit and playfulness of his style.
And credit must be given for his willingness to go down every dark pathway the story approaches. It’s not just the way sex seems to invade every frame — it’s the way eroticism and violence get shuffled into each other, also in homage to Hitchcock. A grisly strangulation explicitly recalls Frenzy; Wasikowka’s wound-up response to it goes a good deal further than Hitch could (even at that late point in his career).
Thankfully for the picture, she is just as game as Park is. The performances here are tricky, since the characters are all role-playing (and not always convincingly), but Wasikowska is a jaded delight, while Kidman’s work is deliciously overripe. Goode, all wide-eyed sincerity, is flat-out terrific; he’s got a way of purring even the most innocuous lines (“I want to know my brother’s wife”) that renders them dampened and filthy. The divergence between what he says and what he does is further heightened by Nicholas De Toth’s cutting, which deftly intermingles past and present, perception and action. Clint Mansell’s funny-scary score lends a big assist (and hats off to whoever brought in the Lee Hazelwood tune “Summer Wine”; the film uses both its kitsch and its eroticism in equal measure).
Stoker’s hyperactive style will certainly prove too overbearing for some, and Park’s bristling, restless energy can’t always distract us from certain questions of plotting and consistency. But those all fall away by the intoxicating third act. The final reveals are properly horrifying — the joke’s over, and as with his “Vengeance Trilogy,” the filmmaker knows when to embrace genre conventions, when to kid them, and when to transcend them. The closing scenes are straight-up bonkers — but they don’t cheat, the way lesser films of this ilk so often do. As bananas as it gets, Stoker’s conclusion is all of a piece with the picture, which has the surrealistic imagery and doomed inevitability of a good nightmare.
Stoker opens tomorrow in limited release.