Director Park Chan-wook's first movie in English may be more conventional than his earlier films, but it's still a sleek, nasty thriller.
The title of Korean director Park Chan-wook's English-language debut, Stoker, may evoke the vampiric, but it is not a reference to Bram and his Dracula. (That's a genre Park already bled dry in his last feature, Thirst.) The inspiration for Stoker instead lies in Alfred Hitchcock and the film he often declared his favorite of his works, Shadow of a Doubt: another bored girl on the cusp of womanhood; another unexpected visit from a faraway yet strangely intimate Uncle Charlie; a few bars of whistling; a smattering of strangulation.
This being Park, of course, the screenplay (by Prison Break's Wentworth Miller) mines darker territory than the Thornton Wilder-penned script of its predecessor. Gone is the happy, small-town family in Santa Rosa, California, replaced by a shattered clan in a chilly, upper-class American anywhere. Introverted 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has just lost her father (Dermot Mulroney), who was burned to a crisp in a mysterious car accident. Her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), is distant, grieving, quasi-alcoholic. Enter the enigmatic Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who materializes at the outskirts of his brother's funeral, glinting with malice in the afternoon sun.
Charlie quickly insinuates himself into the household, and any obstacles to his intrusion—an elderly housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville), a competing aunt (Jacki Weaver)—seem to vanish overnight. But what is it he desires? His amused appetite shows every sign of being omnivorous: He tells Evelyn "I want to know my brother's wife" (and she makes it abundantly clear that she would be happy to be known); he circles India with predatory patience.
With Stoker, Park—best known for his Vengeance Trilogy and in particular, its middle installment, the 2003 stunner Oldboy—has created a macabre neo-gothic thriller, elegant in its malevolence. There are moments of near-camp, such as a piano-duet seduction (written specifically for the scene by Philip Glass) that fairly winks with self-awareness. But Park never descends into parody. This is Dark Shadows without the whimsy and the werewolves, a tale of deep family rot and of past sins that cannot be redeemed, only repeated or repaid.
Working with his usual cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon, Park again displays his eye for haunting detail: a daddy long-legs that creeps up India's bare calf, a metronome that tocks with foreboding, an eggshell that cracks as heavily as if it were the Earth's crust. The moment we glimpse the dingy freezer in the Stokers' basement, we know that it will prove better suited to corpses than comestibles. And anyone who sees the film is unlikely ever again to think of a man's belt as merely something to hold up trousers.
Where Thirst made a fetish of blood, Stoker (despite its own sanguinary eruptions) is primally concerned with earth and burial—the grave, the cave-in, the beckoning hole in the ground: eternal prisons for the living and the dead alike.
For all its grisly pleasures, though, Stoker is a far more conventional film than Park's previous features. It has its share of genuine shocks, but none has quite the neurologic intensity of those in Thirst and Oldboy in particular. It doesn't help that the most disturbing of its twists is perhaps the third-from-last, which gives the film a slight final-act sag.
Make no mistake: Stoker is a cunning exercise in transgression, a sleek, nasty little fable of first kisses and first kills. But one can't help but wonder what kind of film Park might have made if he'd had the full creative control to which he's accustomed in Korea. (He's made clear in interviews that there were disagreements, however friendly, between him and the studio, Fox Searchlight.) Instead, we have this movie, an intriguing if somewhat uneasy compromise between Park's idiosyncratic ferocity and Hollywood's aversion to risk. If only Stoker had been allowed to dig deeper still.