The American debut of kind-to-be-cruel South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (“Old Boy,” “Lady Vengeance”), based on a script by the actor Wentworth Miller (“Prison Break”) with rewrites by Erin Cressida Wilson (“Secretary”) is a brisk, chilly variation on themes in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” but it never finds a convincing shape of its own. “Stoker,” opens on the day of a funeral for eighteen-year-old India Stoker’s beloved father, who taught her all she knows about how and what to shoot, but not all of family history, which gets rewritten with the arrival of Uncle Charles. Uncle Charlie is played by Matthew Goode as the kind of madman who should be revealed not as increasingly mad, or merely misunderstood, but an actor instructing some kind of second-rate acting school in how to be a bad actor. As young India (rather than “Shadow of a Doubt”‘s young Charlie/Charlotte) blonde Mia Wasikowska’s genuine screen presence is damped by shoulder-length black hair that suggests both hanging moss and scary girl children in J-horror movies. Goode is bad. As India’s impassive, doll-like mother, Nicole Kidman makes a fine Stepford widow. The setting is generic economy gothic, verdant by day and currant-pooled by night. Stuff happens, then some more stuff happens. Psychosexual doodles get almost as much attention as wallpaper doodles. Park told the Guardian that the studio’s cut of the film is a half-hour shorter than his own; shorter pulp only runs faster, not better. Clint Mansell’s eclectic score makes pleasing distraction. Still, there are moments of etched, crystalline clarity not limited to the playing of a record of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra playing throughout an impertinent set piece that triangulates widow, uncle and daughter. A lovely, strange image where Kidman’s red hair fills the screen as a dense curtain and then dissolves into a sea of green grass is the kind of inspired but utterly beside-the-point visual kick that the film abounds in. At times, the goings-on seem as disconnected as M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water.” The shame is that while the film is as glossy as late DePalma, essential Hitchcockiness is swapped out for random ickiness, a sorrow in light of Park’s own history of crafting sleek, liquescent, swamping fever dreams. “Stoker” was shot near Nashville, which partially explains the blink-and-you’ve-blinked cameo by Harmony Korine as a high-school art teacher. With Alden Ehrenreich, Jacki Weaver, Lucas Till, Dermot Mulroney. 98m. (Ray Pride)
“Stoker” is now playing. A clip is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.