A perverse fairy tale with an exquisite sense of mordant, sexy menace, Stoker is the kind of cinematic whirlwind that typically slips through the public's fingers — think baroque wonders like Donald Cammell's White of the Eye or Paul Verhoeven's The Fourth Man, too kinky and weird to connect with a mass audience. Here, not so. Coming on strong in limited release, Stoker is deliciously camp, but not in a way that lends itself to easy mocking. The film shifts modes from thought to memory and experience with playful ease — a perfect mesh with the aesthetics of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, here making his English-language debut.
Suffused with the dark histories and symbolic homesteads of classic Southern Gothic, yet equally versed in the remorseless plot labyrinths of Park's "Vengeance Trilogy," Stoker is a love letter in equal measures to Alfred Hitchcock, Flannery O'Connor, and Charles Laughton. Director Park found an excellent project in actor-turned-writer Wentworth Miller's script, keeping some of the touchstones of his best Korean films (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, J.S.A., the "Cut" segment of Three Extremes) while tapping into the family-guignol traditions of sprawling manses and tangled family trees.
The Stoker family has its little intrigues; all families do. But as young India (Mia Wasikowska) and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) deal with the tragic death of father and husband Richard (Dermot Mulroney, seen in portentous flashback) — and perhaps worse, the sudden reappearance of his long-lost brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) — it's evident something's been amiss with the Stokers for a long time. What follows is a smooth rat-poison cocktail of sex, violence, interfamily warfare and murder, with a lulu of a sandbox setpiece that could be Mr. Rogers' take on Titus Andronicus.
Park was transitioning in his Korean films from cool detachment toward flamboyantly stylized melodrama. In Stoker, the butterfly emerges from its wardrobe. Using Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt as his template, making explicit what The Master of Suspense barely hinted at — namely, the sexual attraction flickering in the sick Teresa Wright-Joseph Cotten relationship — Park aims for something closer to the hothouse eroticism and stylistic gamesmanship of late-period De Palma. As Charlie seduces Evelyn while playing cat-and-mouse with India, every deliriously hyper-symbolic image is charged with multiple meanings; each frame fits into the jigsaw mania of Park's elaborately splintered design.
And yet the performances are as heightened as avant-garde theater, even as Park plays with tried-and-true thriller iconography and archetypes that go back millennia. Goode, as mysterious Uncle Charlie, gives a fascinating performance — not because he comes off as completely psychotic, but that he finds an entire emotional arc within that psychosis. On screen, Goode tends to exemplify a certain type (based on A Single Man and Watchmen, let's just say effete cobalt), but here he's always a human being at heart, however serrated and elastic his notion of family.
I've liked Mia Wasikowska before, but here she brings her A-game, incarnating a walking bruise the magnitude of Heart of Midnight/Dolores Claiborne-era Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her India is a dark-minded girl with an aptitude for hunting and a distinct mistrust of everything, a deeply acerbic pragmatist who sees through everything around her, deep into the shadows. Director Park favors blank expressions given a sinister cast by their surroundings; Wasikowska has a gift for keeping her cards close — viewers never feel they've gotten ahead of her character. She takes scenes prone to overripe silliness — e.g., a Philip Glass piano duet for leering uncle and orgasmic niece that would've made Ken Russell blanch — and anchors them in wounded humanity. She's the real deal.
Nicole Kidman is not the star of this particular narrative, but she brings so much nasty relish to the proceedings that it's impossible to imagine things without her. As in The Paperboy, she again suggests a libido beating like a raptor against its cage, but here she finds a more brittle, jittery variation on Tennessee Williams erotomania. This was a project she nurtured and kept close to her Middle Tennessee home — the part of John Cheever country is played by Nashville — and when she hisses venom at her sullen daughter or slinks around like Betty Draper haunting a house, you can see why she wanted the movie, and why Park wanted it too. With global treasure Jacki Weaver as the pushy aunt with not enough scenes, and some of Tennessee's finest artists and craftspeople on board — Harmony Korine as a caring art teacher, David Alford as a concerned priest — Stoker may be the sickest, most twisted film about working through family issues we'll get this year. And possibly the most fun.