Thursday, September 5, 2013
South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut feature starts off as a family drama about introverted India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) whose father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a fiery car crash on her 18th birthday. Her less-than-grief-stricken mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) remains cold, so the girl retreats further inward, getting what comfort she can from family housekeeper Mrs. Garrick (Phyllis Somerville). The arrival of Richard’s brother Charles (Matthew Goode) at the funeral reception begins the film’s subtle evolution into chamber horror, complete with cruelty, violence, and dark family secrets. Neither Stoker woman has set eyes upon the prodigal before, but Charles, tacitly receptive to Evelyn’s flirtation, insinuates himself into the household over the open suspicion of India, the unspoken disapproval of Mrs. Garrick, and the concern of meddling relation Gwendolyn Stoker (Jacki Weaver) paying an unexpected visit. Despite her initial reservation India finds herself drawn to her enigmatic uncle, who likewise shows an unsettling interest in the inner life of his withdrawn niece. This mutual fascination turns deadly, however, when India spurns a local teen’s hormonal advances. Compared with his notoriously violent OLDBOY, the revenge tale as perverse Greek tragedy, Park’s stylish work here feels subdued. He embraces the gothic elements in Wentworth Miller’s spare screenplay, and his cool visual palate clashes with his saturated images, which seem ready to burst like overfed parasites, and add to the film’s perpetual sense of unease. But its rich atmosphere cannot compensate for its meager story. When major revelations finally arrive late in the film, even patient viewers may be past caring. More problematic, the deliberate pacing undermines the grisly potential of certain sequences, eliciting chortles of disbelief rather than gasps of terror. Mulroney and Weaver are engaging but have far too little to do. Goode’s creepy turn feels plastic, while Kidman sleepwalks through much of her role. Wasikowska, on the other hand, makes India’s psychological awakening both relatable and mesmerizing.