If you haven’t turned on to the cinematic fever dreams of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook – I’m obsessed with Oldboy, Thirst and Joint Security Area – Stoker makes a great gateway drug. It’s Park’s first film in English. But it hasn’t slowed him down. Stoker is Park’s darkly funny, deliciously depraved riff on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which a young girl bonds with her serial-killer uncle. The deft script, by actor Wentworth Miller (Prison Break), is just a starting point for Park to create his own visionary magic.
The title is a nod to Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula. But Charles Stoker, the character played by Matthew Goode, is no bloodsucker, at least not literally. Uncle Charlie is a world traveler, a pretty Ken doll paying a first visit to his shy niece, India (Mia Wasikowska), and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The occasion is a funeral. Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney), husband to Evelyn, father to India and brother to Charlie, has died in a car accident. Everyone seems unhinged, except Uncle Charlie, who exudes a freakish cool.
I’ll say no more, leaving you to revel in Park’s poison valentine to the ties that bind. The images – a spider exploring India’s leg, a splash of blood on grass – have an eerie allure reinforced by camera whiz Chung-hoon Chung. As emotions erupt, so do the sex and violence. How inappropriately close was India to her father? How close is she getting to her uncle? Just listen to their piano duet, scored by Philip Glass. You’ll be creeped out big-time.
The actors give it their all. Kidman is all nerve endings and sexual longing; Goode excels at hidden agendas. And Wasikowska, the bright star of Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland, is a fearless wonder as she boldly descends into Park’s rabbit hole of psychological terror. Park has built a hothouse of erotic tension that’s primed to explode. Some will find it too much. Screw them. Park’s goal is to bust form, not conform to it. Take Stoker for what it is: a thriller of savage beauty.