“Stoker,” opening Friday, is a fascinating cinematic oddity, a Southern Gothic melodrama-thriller whose theme is nicely stated by its lead character, India: “We don’t need to be friends. We’re family.”
A simple theme, but in the first English-language film directed by South Korean master Park Chan-wook, nothing is simple. The result is a truly strange, often very unsettling film that feels both wildly original and a bit too familiar.
India, played by Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”), is the epitome of the moody, withdrawn, introspective teenager, and she has good reason to be. Her father, Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney), has just died in mysterious fashion.
India lives in a sprawling old house with her clearly unsound mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and a housekeeper, Mrs. Garnish (Phyllis Somerville). Oh, and Uncle Charlie, who Evelyn and India had not met until after his brother’s funeral.
Uncle Charlie – yes, I think we can call this a rather obvious reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” – is played by Matthew Goode as a smirking, attractively vague cad fresh from life abroad.
Charlie seems oddly intrigued by India, and she and her forever wine-sipping mother, are oddly intrigued by Charlie. Yet, as India can tell, something is off with her convertible-cruising uncle.
Where, after all, had he been all her life? Why does his aunt (played by Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver) seem to fear him so?
That is the basic premise of “Stoker,” but that’s all a tad misleading. It sounds like something Adrian Lyne or Joel Schumacher may have cooked up in the ’90s.
“Stoker” is not that. It is, in fact, an amalgamation of old Hollywood tropes with Chan-wook’s inimitable visual style, a film that already has proved divisive among critics and could equally confound audiences.
Viewers anticipating Friday night jolts will find it only semi-satisfying. One must embrace the narrow-eyed mood of Wasikowska’s daydreamy India to find the story involving.
That won’t be hard for those familiar with Chan-wook’s previous work. His style is violent and deliberate, marrying over-the-top plot twists and acting with shock and awe. And “Stoker,” written by “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller, fits him as tightly as India’s black-and-white saddle shoes.
Aided by Goode and Kidman, and, especially, a perfectly cast Wasikowska, the filmmaker has crafted a tangled family tale that’s successful in its ability to make one’s skin crawl.
Well, mostly successful. “Stoker” is by no means a perfect film, or even a great one. Minus a wonderfully ominous sequence with a fearful Weaver at her hotel, every moment outside of the family home is choppy and disjointed, and the scenes of India in school feel ripped out of bad ’80s cinema.
Some viewers will find it hard to take the twists seriously, and the violence often verges on overkill. The film ends in rather surprising fashion, hammering home its belief that nothing is stronger than blood. Indeed, it feels like chapter one in the sure-to-be-sad story of India’s life, leaving us to ponder whether or not we can ever break the bonds of family.
For Chan-wook, that answer is no, and like spiritual siblings David Lynch and Takashi Miike, it leads to films that shower you in blood, but do so with a wink. And while “Stoker” is nowhere near his best work, it carries on his grim vision nicely.
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman
Director: Park Chan-wook
Running time: 98 minutes
Rating: R for disturbing violent and sexual content.
The Lowdown: After her father dies, a teenager’s strange uncle moves in, and she begins to suspect he has ulterior motives.