Stoker: Gloom with a View

Visual threat trumps explicit gore in 'Oldboy' director Park Chan-wook's first American thriller

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Macall Polay / Fox Searchlight Pictures

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is one of those children who seem in perpetual rehearsal for an early death. Her favorite book is The Encyclopedia of Funerals. She allows an insect to crawl up the Kilimanjaro of her bare leg, as if she were already a cadaver. She resists all attempts of her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) to please lighten up and join the world. Among her few treasured memories are the hunting trips she took with her beloved father Richard (either Dylan McDermott or Dermot Mulroney). India could be eight or 80; in fact, she turned 18 the day Richard died in a car crash. At the memorial service she encounters a stranger (Matthew Goode) with an amicably intense interest in her. Evie tells her, “Say hello to your Uncle Charlie.”

Any viewer likely to cozy up to the creepy, glamorously filmed, gloriously artificial Stoker — Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first English-language film — will hear that line of dialogue and automatically think of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt. There, Joseph Cotten was the charming, enigmatic Uncle Charlie, who drops into a suburban American family to fascinate and frighten the young heroine played by Teresa Wright.

(FIND: Uncle Charlie among the Top 25 Greatest Movie Villains)

In his Stoker script, Wentworth Miller — the Anglo-American actor who played the young Anthony Hopkins in Robert Benton’s The Human Stain (costarring Kidman) and is best known as Michael Scofield, scheming to free his brother from an unjust murder conviction on the Fox TV drama Prison Break — updates Shadow of a Doubt and draws India more intimately into Charlie’s web. Wright’s Charlie (she was named after her uncle) is a sweet girl who must see through her crush on a suave older man to find the malignancy he conceals. India, who already loves to play with dead things, may in some way be seeking a man who might have the habit of making things die.

(READ: James Poniewozik’s review of Prison Break)

The name of this chicly dysfunctional family also tips Miller’s ambition to produce reverberations of Bram Stoker’s famous novel. Could Charlie, the courtly, mysterious visitor, be Count Dracula, and India his young prey — or accomplice? Surely they are bound, perhaps twinned, by kinship. “We don’t need to be friends,” Charlie tells her. “We’re family.” And in a letter he wrote to India years before she knew he existed, and which was kept from her, Charlie says, “Please know that I am with you, as we share the same blood.”

(SEE: 90 Years of Vampires on the Screen)

Charlie moves into the swank, sterile Stoker home, satisfying both Evie’s desire for male companionship and India’s need to be close to the family member closest to her father. When any newcomers, like his suspicious Aunt Gin (Silver Linings Playbook’s Jacki Weaver), dare to intrude on the new trio, they soon disappear. A sly reprobate who wears his menace like the smartest cologne, Charlie ingratiates himself with India, treating her like the adult she wants to become while defending her against the schoolboys who bully her. Yet she can’t help wondering if there’s a toxicity behind his smile. Since this is a psychological thriller, though distinctly of the upscale-indie variety, there’d better be blood — unless, following another thriller trope, India is dreaming/nightmaring the whole thing.

(SEE: the all-TIME Top 25 Horror Movies)

Questions of the is-she-isn’t-she? ilk aren’t normally found in the Park oeuvre. His films — notably the Vengeance trilogy, whose middle episode, Oldboy, earned some notoriety when it was thought to have inspired Cho Seung-Hui’s 2007 Virginia Tech murder rampage — have been called the Tarantino movies that Quentin Tarantino would be afraid to make. They take explicit violence and self-mutilation as their texts; the guilt of the putative villain infects and corrupts the putative hero.

(READ: Did Oldboy inspire the Va. tech massacre?

In his previous feature, the 2009 Thirst, Park painted a full-throated picture of a reluctant vampire — a Catholic priest transformed by a medical experiment into a rabid, airborne creature of the night — and his avid acolyte. Thirst was magnificently obsessed with the power, the poison, the rapture of emotional and sexual predation; it told its story from within its characters’ anguished hearts and lured the receptive viewer inside for an enthralling ride. In Stoker, thematically a cousin or nephew to Thirst, Park switches his method from romantically demonstrative to allusive and elusive. Like a Harold Pinter play, the movie shrouds its threat in enigmatic atmosphere. Almost until the end, it hints, hides, deflects.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst)

Park has said he was sorry he didn’t get to direct the recent bio-pic Hitchcock; but Stoker is way Hitchcockier than that staid fiction about the making of Psycho. Park garnishes the story with trimmings from the Norman Bates movie: stuffed birds, a woman confronting murder in the shower, a corpse in the cellar, a swinging overhead light in said cellar, a housefly landing on a killer in his very last shot. Again, though, the startles are more subtle. A kiss may turn into a vampiric bite (not on the neck but through the tongue); the sharpened point of a No. 2 pencil substitutes for Mother Bates’s kitchen knife.

(READ: Was Hitchcock Psycho?

Stoker flirts with the Authentic Weirdie category — a movie, like Night of the Living Dead or, for that matter, Thirst, that seems made by the mad people it depicts —  but this is more a synthetic weirdie. Its assonances as elegantly crafted as anything in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The aural landscape created by sound designer Chuck Michael, who also worked on Hitchcock, foregrounds noises from nature (crickets) and India’s home (a cracking egg shell). The silences can also be deafening. “My ears hear what others cannot hear,” India says in the opening voiceover, and the audience quickly gets on her acute wavelength; the girl’s every breath is audible, as if through a stethoscope. The dialogue is occasionally out of synch, implicitly stressing the disconnect between what the characters say and what they mean. The delicately ominous score by Clint Mansell (Black Swan and Blood: The Last Vampire) is abutted by two pieces written for the movie by Philip Glass, including a piano duet for Charlie and India. Or is the girl playing both parts?

(READ: Lisa Abend’s review of Philip Glass’s Walt Disney opera)

Shot by Park’s regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, Stoker is a visually complex artifact as well. Charlie’s annual, secret gift of shoes for India is shown in a short, brisk montage hurtling back in time, from a teenager’s saddle shoes to an infant’s booties. Closeups of bugs and flowers, or of Evie’s long blond hair segueing into the riverbed reeds where India and her father crouch on their hunting trips, make this a naturalist’s horror movie. Call it Malice — or Malick — in Wonderland.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Tree of Life)

A little triumph of Stoker is that, in this hothouse, the actors manage to breathe life into their characters. Wasikowska — the pensive Alice in Tim Burton’s Wonderland, the troubled teen on In Therapy, Jane Eyre to Michael Fassbender’s Rochester — is a past mistress at playing odd girls. Like a young Claire Danes, with an eerie gaze instead of a Cry Face, she is the blank slate on which Park writes India’s dreams and disease. Colin Firth was to have played Charlie; but Goode (Firth’s lover in A Single Man) provides a light, lethal touch; he can seem either sane or twisted, as the pirouetting plot demands. And Kidman, apparently recovered from her cosmetic-surgery adventures, now looks like a handsome woman of her actual age. She persuasively summons the anxieties of a woman worried that a smooth younger man might be more attracted to her daughter. Goode, an Englishman, and the Australians Wasikowska, Kidman and Weaver all nail their American accents. But that this upper-class Midwestern family (the film was shot in Nashville) should be played by foreigners contributes to the movie’s enveloping otherness.

(READ: Corliss on Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre)

Lovely to look at and fun to appraise, Stoker has provocative sexual tensions but little emotional kick. Its events seem to take place inside a terrarium: an environment where the biological facts of life and death are on display for the cool connoisseur. The movie is less to be experienced than to be appreciatively studied, like an insect, a stuffed bird, or the sketch by a gifted artist in the style of an Old Master — in this case, the Master of Suspense. It’s not pure Park or pure Hitchcock but a muted, mildly mesmerizing blend of the two. You might want to take a careful stroll in this Hitchpark.