Film review: Stoker

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 February, 2013, 12:16pm

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode
Director: Park Chan-wook
Category: III


Given its scintillating trailer, Stoker is a major disappointment.

The English debut of South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook is hell bent on cashing every cinematic chip he banked from a cache of cult built on hits like Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. At its best, Stoker is an over-styled, under-stewed, psycho suspense thriller that is gothic with sexual tension and baroque with visual trickery. At worst, it is a vacuous exercise in aesthetics.

Nicole Kidman (above with Matthew Goode) and Mia Wasikowska are mother and daughter grieving after the sudden death of India's father, when a previously unknown relative (Goode) shows up. Naturally, they invite uncle Charlie to stay with them right away. Sensitive emo teenager India (Wasikowska) senses immediately there is something off about her new kin. But Kidman is in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof mode and doesn't notice handsome Charlie's killer smile is more killer than smile, and that he seems to be stalking India openly at her school.

Park's direction is painstakingly cool and deliberate. The colour scheme is rich and gorgeous. The sheen of the lighting matches the set design's retro decor and India's bobby-socks wardrobe, all of which hint at a facade of innocence with a dark taboo in the family basement. But the innuendoes of sex and violence are so overbaked that when revealed, the twists have little shock or surprise value.

The plot borrows liberally from Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, where a mother and daughter also develop suspicions about an uncle named Charlie. But the perversity is ratcheted up with a dash of Cain and Abel marinated by Freudian dynamics. Too bad none of this makes the mishmash of tone and symbols any more alluring. The pulp drama, by Prison Brea k's Wentworth Miller, offers more tease than insight and no amount of oblique camera angles, exaggerated sound effects or kinky expressionism will give this overwrought tale more sense.

The exaggerated acting has so little naturalism it's like they're performing a Greek tragedy (or is it comedy?). Channelling a post-pubescent Wednesday Addams, Wasikowska always looks aloof and that should work to the film's advantage. Only it doesn't. Same with Kidman's pinched and overripe desperate housewife mother.

The basic conceit of a suspense is not letting the viewer know if someone is good or evil right away. In Stoker, the dark and grotesque weirdness is so upfront it's never in doubt. There's no denying its beauty, it's just too bad Stoker is so dumb.

Stoker opens today