Oldboy director Park Chan-wook makes his American debut with a suitably twisted tale of an alienated teenage girl’s growing suspicion of the motives of her newly discovered relative, Uncle Charlie.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a bright but withdrawn teenager whose beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) dies on her 18th birthday. However, his death is immediately followed by the arrival of his brother Charlie (Matthew Goode); whose existence comes as a complete surprise to India. Her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) explains that Charlie has spent the past 20 years travelling the globe on geological surveys and was estranged from his brother Richard. Charlie decides to stay on at the Stoker Mansion and while Evelyn throws herself at him, India maintains an aloof distance. But the mysterious disappearance of their housekeeper Mrs McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) followed by a visit from her grand-aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), who warns India to be wary of Charlie, arouses her suspicions about Charlie’s shadowy past. She soon has concerns about his present intentions as they start bonding…
Stoker looks and sounds amazing. The colours are rich, and Park does amazing things with ambient sound; consistently pushed to the foreground to incredibly unsettling effect giving the film a sustained intensity of unease. One stunning moment in which the camera circles a character, following a belt being deafeningly pulled off, creates an effect akin to hearing the tell-tale warning before a rattlesnake strike. Park doesn’t hold back on the Hitchcockian flourishes; the camera swoops away and pushes in dramatically, observes characters eavesdropping, generates suspense from the mere framing of innocuous dialogue scenes, and even features a memorably diabolic shower scene. Park teases the audience magnificently, holding on back on information at key points, and then complicating our interpretation of certain images with additional back-story. Even performing a simple piano duet written by Philip Glass becomes a deliriously transgressive experience.
But there’s a flipside… Wentworth Miller’s original screenplay lifts a number of elements from Hitchcock’s 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt, but doesn’t pilfer such crucial traits as a sympathetic protagonist, likeable antagonist, believable characters, or sustained ambiguity. I’m not sure a film set in Connecticut can really claim to be part of the Southern Gothic literary tradition as it’s been positioned, and in any case this is more Shadow of a Doubt by way of Dexter than Flannery O’Connor. And this isn’t just me seeing Dexter everywhere; as probably the most original show of the last decade it’s unsurprising that ideas from it are percolating. But Dexter DNA doesn’t include ciphers masquerading as people. Goode’s unblinking Charlie is positively reptilian, Wasikowska’s India is totally deadened, and Kidman’s Evelyn a mere melodramatic type. The result is an anti-Hitchcockian emotional detachment.
Miller’s script rocked the Black List in 2010 but it’s the weakest link in Park’s accomplished film, which lacks his Korean movies’ visceral punch.