18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has a tendency to keep her emotions beneath the surface. When she loses the person in her life she was closest to, her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney), it doesn't seem to affect her much on the outside. Instead, her curiosity is piqued by the appearance of a young, handsome man she's never met, who watches the funeral from a distance before appearing at the reception afterward. Despite her relationship with her father, nobody has ever told India about her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who gives off a dangerous, yet alluring air as he decides to stay with India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) while they try and adjust to life without Richard. It's clear to India almost immediately that Charlie has a dark side, but she's less prepared for how his dark side brings out her own.
Stoker is the first American production by popular Korean director Chan-Wook Park, whose Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance) made him a "household name" for film fans with their harrowing, emotionally engaging depictions of revenge and murder. Scripted by "Prison Break" star Wentworth Miller, the movie feels somewhat like Park riffing on himself, offering similar ideas about the nature of violence and violence as nature, but despite some truly top-notch direction, the film never connects on the same emotional level as his Korean films. It's a film specifically about the emotional turmoil of a character, yet it fails to let the viewer in.
The simplest concern can be easily dismissed: Park's style is still intact. Many stylish foreign directors have made the trip to the United States, only to find their trademarks and talent are muted or removed by American studios looking to co-opt a brand rather than hire an artist. Stoker, however, couldn't be farther from a worst-case scenario; the film practically feels like Park amped up his style as if to prove himself to English-speaking viewers seeing one of his films for the first time. The film is packed with beautiful transitions (gaps in a section of Kidman's red hair created by a comb transform into the paths in a wheat field) and elegant visual metaphors (Charlie and India standing shifting up or down a step on a staircase as they gain and lose control in the conversation, and a sexually-charged piano duel). From a directorial standpoint, Stoker is a masterpiece, packed with symbolism that accentuate India's emotional state.
However, all the artstry in the world doesn't mean anything if the emotions they're meant to be accentuating aren't there, and Stoker is a cold movie that brilliantly evokes the mood but failing to really put the viewer in India's shoes. India is a fascinating character: she's struggling with the loss of her father, who helped her control her emotional state, while also fuming about the decision by both parents to keep Charlie's existence from her. On top of that, she's struggling with her sexuality, spurned not only by Charlie's intoxicating presence, but also her mother's overt interest in Charlie. Seeing all of this in the film is easy, but somewhere between Park's direction and Wasikowska's performance, the film fails to bring the viewer into these emotions. Park's Korean films managed to make the viewer feel implicit in the violence or rocked them with the cruelty of fate, but India stays out of reach, a person to be observed rather than empathized with.
Stoker should be a great movie. All of the elements are in place: a great director, a solid screenplay, and an excellent cast (Goode does inspired work here, carefully exercising control over the character's allure). At times (such as the piano sequence), the elements of the film that do work manage to briefly crack an emotional door, and those are the moments with the most power and resonance. It could be argued that Park is making a conscious decision here to do something different than his other films, to purposefully stay at a distance from India, but these little blips of his usual skill suggest otherwise. Stoker embodies its main character: beautiful, yet removed.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.