For about two-thirds of its length, Stoker is the year’s most fascinating film so far, largely because it’s hard to determine just what it’s up to, or to guess in which direction it might be headed. Written by actor Wentworth Miller (Prison Break), it’s the English-language debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook, best known for his ultraviolent “vengeance trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance). Stoker isn’t nearly so vicious, but Park does such a superb job of sustaining tension, via off-kilter compositions and expert cross-cutting, that the movie is nearly over before you realize how fundamentally hollow and conventional it is.
The seduction begins immediately, as we’re introduced to 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) communing with nature at the side of a lonely road. This sensual reverie contrasts sharply with her stifling home life, shared only with her weirdly intense mother (Nicole Kidman) since the recent death of her father (Dermot Mulroney) in a car accident. So India is at first flustered, then intrigued, and finally swept away by the unexpected appearance of her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who’s spent most of her young life traveling the far reaches of the globe. Both India’s mom and her great-aunt (Jacki Weaver) seem very concerned about Charlie’s presence in the house, but he and India share an increasingly twisted bond, manifested in everything from impassioned piano duets to complicity in the murder of a schoolmate who tries to rape India in the woods late one night.
Film buffs will instantly register that an uncle named Charlie in the company of a teenage girl must be up to no good. (If you don’t know why, rent Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt at once.) But when the time finally comes to reveal the depths of Charlie’s depravity, and its effect upon India, Stoker falls well short of the promise suggested by those early scenes, with their knowing air of mystery and restlessness. Miller has written terrific roles for actors, and he’s given a first-rate stylist like Park plenty to work with, but dramatic and emotional coherence elude him. It’s a meager meal disguised by gorgeous presentation.