What is it about Hollywood that sucks dry the ingenuity of Asian filmmakers when they dare to venture on our shores? We've seen it far too often in the past, most recently to poor South Korean director Kim Ji-Woon who made the embarrassing action flick The Last Stand with Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Park Chan-Wook is a different case altogether. The revered auteur behind the stylish, ultra-violent Vengeance Trilogy and the crazy, operatic vampire flick Thirst, Park's melodramatic flourishes are on full display. Unfortunately they're rendered hollow by a cold and lifeless script that lacks any mystery.
Park has always had the benefit of co-writing his screenplays up to this point, but Stoker's script by ex-Prison Break star Wentworth Miller is like an amateur trying to emulate Hitchcock, specifically Shadow of a Doubt. He delivers every turn with the heavy hand of a loaded boxing glove, telegraphed from a mile away and landing with a dull thud. Without any true sense of dread or even a hint of dramatic weight, Park's garish displays come off as pretentious.
Mia Wasikowska proves to be the perfect choice to play India Stoker, a clever and prudish girl who fits the Victorian Gothic flavor of the film perfectly. She's a moody and sullen loner who "can hear things others can't", although why this is important is never fully realized. Born into wealth, she's thrown for a loop when her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) is killed in a car accident. Her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) barely seems to notice, and when her husband's brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) mysteriously turns up out of nowhere, it's clear she's more than a little interested.
It's clear right away that something's not right about Charlie, and Park dresses the film up with lots of obvious imagery to make sure we know. Crawling spiders everywhere is a dead giveaway, but not nearly as much as Charlie's "To Catch a Predator' perma-grin. Sure, he's charming and charismatic, but the dark stuff more than outweighs it. He never eats, has some weird infatuation with his dead brother's belt, and always seems to be nearby. India's Aunt (Jackie Weaver) shows up out of the clear blue, obviously worried about Charlie's presence. But she never gets to explain why, disappearing soon after. There seem to be a lot of people disappearing, yet nobody seems to care except for a local cop. Don't spend too much time worrying about his fate.
Subtlety is never this film's strong suit, and any mystery there is quickly paved over beneath a thick layer of stupidity. Devolving into campiness, we're expected to take serious one of the most hilarious masturbation scenes ever. Let's just say that violence and sex are inextricably linked here, and soon India isn't sure whether she finds Charlie's darker tendencies terrifying or really hot. For a while their psycho-sexual tête-à-tête is deeply intriguing and the question whether India's urges are learned or genetic is fascinating yet unexplored. In a way, it's the polar opposite of Park's prior films where violence is simply a necessity. There's a moral gray area here that the director is keener on presenting than the script is sturdy enough to allow.
Pulling out every visual trick in his considerable repertoire, Park defies our expectations at every turn, playing with unique camera angles, fade-ins, and one gloriously crafted sequence in which Nicole Kidman's flowing hair morphs into a field of wind-blown grass. It's a film that's impossible to look away from for fear of missing something special. Although it's not totally the director's fault, Stoker turns out to be a prime example of style winning out over substance.