The flower of evil grows within a teen girl in Stoker, a deliriously stylized psychological thriller from Korean director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy), about some increasingly disturbing family dynamics that take root after the husband and father’s accidental death. But that’s not really what Stoker is about, no—it’s about a camera, moving in and around and through and between, a real piece of cinema so gorgeously mounted it elevates the pulp to near-art. It’s a Hitchockian, DePalma-esque carnival of glossy perversity, buckets of blood and as much atmosphere as the twisty script, from a screenplay by actor Wentworth Miller, can happily accommodate. Which is a lot.
Eighteen-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is defiantly a strange wallflower—quiet, reticent, dressed in black and never without her saddle shoes, and the antithesis of her unreasonably sunny mother, Evelyn (a terrific Nicole Kidman), a glamorous widow who yearns for a closer relationship with the alienated teen, with whom she’s never shared a bond.
After dad’s (Dermot Mulroney) abrupt and mysterious death from a car crash, enter long lost Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a devilishly sexy and probably dangerous interloper who takes an unhealthy liking to India (we’re not sure of the nature of this symmetry until much later). He’s handsome, charming, the picture of civility in his perfect coif and dinner jacket, and mom seems to like him just a little too much. They must have planned the husband’s death, right? Not quite.
As dark as they come, India doesn’t mind allowing the manor’s many spiders to crawl up her leg and under her skirt—evil begets evil is one of the film’s themes—and that includes the spidery cool Charlie, who follows her to school and protects her from harassing bullies, including a horny teen (Alden Ehrenreich) in way over his head. Also in the way is sympathetic aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), who knows too much for her own good, and the film gets ace mileage out of a suspenseful scene involving a cell phone and phone booth.
Evelyn wastes no time dispensing with bereavement and makes an obvious play for charismatic Charlie, but she miscalculates his growing attraction to daughter India. But what is their symmetry? Why is Charlie so fascinated with his young niece? Goode, the likable star of Brideshead Revisited and The Lookout, keeps us guessing until a shocking flashback scene that sets the gears in motion for the film’s all-stops-out, bloody climax.
Park Chan-Wook, in his first American film, proves his hypnotic Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance style hasn’t been muzzled, delivering a film filled with memorable compositions, including one piece of visual invention—Kidman’s red mane becomes a forest of tall grass in a flashback—truly lovely. It’s a treat to see a movie as visually inventive as Stoker, a lost art in modern American films.
To both the screenplay’s credit and detriment, we’re never quite sure what to make of young India until the film’s final scenes, which suggesting a rising evil reaching maturity, unleashed into the world, and Wasikowska, the gifted star of The Kids are All Right and Jane Eyre, makes the modern teen feel like a gothic anti-heroine, largely cloistered, inside herself, grotesquely turned on by mutilations and undercurrents of incest, coming into her own feminine power. It’s quite a genre cocktail of warped girl power she unleashes in the film’s final reel, and the actress is compelling in every frame of this twisted tale of lost innocence.
Stoker exists in a hyper-stylized netherworld, a beautiful movie about ugly things, shamelessly entertaining, a director’s picture piqued with three malevolent star turns. Style is substance here, but what great style.