On a scale of zero to Quentin Tarantino, South Korean director Park Chan-wook is not stuck in the middle with anyone. In his hyperviolent Vengeance trilogy (2003's Oldboy won the Grand Prix at Cannes), characters have their teeth pulled with pliers and slice out their own tongues, a live octopus is consumed whole, incest occurs both intentionally and accidentally, a woman guns down a puppy, and a man goes on a killing rampage with a hammer. Viewers will find little of that in Park's American debut, Stoker, a coming-of-age psychodrama that strives for Freudian freakiness and Hitchcockian tension. But while the film may bear Park's imprint in its rigid stylization—and there are a handful of blood spurts—it's more silly than shocking, more contrived than creepy.
Stoker centers on India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), an 18-year-old who lives in an odd, country gothic corner of Connecticut. (The film was shot in Tennessee.) Clad in prim saddle shoes, her dark curtain of hair severely parted like Wednesday Addams', the already moody India becomes even more sociopathic after the accidental death of her father (Dermot Mulroney, who appears in flashbacks). In an early scene, she pages through The Encyclopedia of Funerals as she tells her mother, Evelyn (a very arch Nicole Kidman), how widows in China mourn their husbands for three years. Evelyn has warmed up quickly to India's mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), the first of Park's many nods to Alfred Hitchcock. As in 1943's Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie is a smooth looker with a shady past—but where Joseph Cotten was a charismatic murderer of wealthy widows, Goode is a straight-up, unblinking lunatic.
This being a Park film, perverse events and stylized violence follow, though Stoker never hits the batshit heights of the auteur's previous work. A pencil becomes a dangerous weapon, and Park later cuts to a close-up of its bloody tip being slowly sharpened, shavings still oozing red. Blood sprays across embossed red wallpaper. India pops a pus-filled blister. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung—a frequent collaborator of Park's—fills the screen with lush colors and tight shots of the performers' impassive eyes. The sound design, too, is compellingly off-kilter, with an eggshell cracking loudly and a metronome ticking as India makes snow angels on the bed.
Yet these images and sounds have little payoff. Much of the problem lies with Wentworth Miller's soporific screenplay, which relies on brazenly dumb lines ("Charlie, who in the world are you?" Kidman asks) and discontinuous but unfulfilling storytelling. Spoken revelations prompt laughs rather than gasps. Indeed, the more satisfying scenes are those without dialogue, as when India and Charlie play a piano duet that seethes with creepily incestuous tension. There is also a pivotal shower scene (hello again, Hitch) spliced with bloodstained imagery and shots of spine-cracking brutality. But these hardly make up for the slightness of story.
Nor do the performances help. As rigidly stylized as their surroundings, the actors' mannerisms quickly turn from bizarre to boring. Wasikowska is something of an exception, bringing a surprising level of depth to her role even as she's not allowed to move the lower half of her face. Where Kidman is austere to the point of cartoonishness and Goode a bulgy-eyed psychopath, Wasikowska brings enough softness to her role that she's believable as a preternaturally dour and lonely teenager. At more sinister points, she manages to lodge herself under your skin.
But for all its elegant weirdness, Stoker adds up to little. Like the spider that repeatedly crawls up India's bare leg, it keeps creeping forward without ever really arriving anywhere.
Critic's Grade: B-
SEE IT: Stoker is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.