Director Chan-wook Park's Stoker tells the story of India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who, upon her eighteenth birthday, loses her father, Richard, to a fatal car accident. During the funeral, India’s mother and Richard’s widow, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), introduces India for the first time to her uncle, Charlie Stoker(Matthew Goode), who supposedly has been traveling the world for several years. Uncle Charlie decides to live with India and Evelyn indefinitely, but when India’s loved ones start disappearing and her relationship with Uncle Charlie starts to evolve, she begins discovering the much darker side of Uncle Charlie, the Stoker family, and herself.
The best part about Park’s Stoker is its style. Every last frame has been carefully composed and it is all edited in a way that lends itself to an overall, seductive quality. As each seemingly painted screen image segues into the next we’re almost duped into believing this bombshell also has a bright head on her shoulders. Stoker’s attractive visuals and confident camera work are really more of a tease of a good story, than actually being the fabric of a good story. It’s an imitation more than the genuine article.
With such a swift, almost effortless batch of transitions, one would think some kind of care or even sympathy for the characters within these lovely pictures might arise from us, the audience. It never happens though and by the time this Hitchcockian stepchild nears its close, and a majority of the characters are dead, we don’t care who is ultimately left standing because the gravity of their lives is never made apparent.
Sure, disturbed characters don’t necessarily need our love. They do, however, need our attention and none of these characters fully command that. They feel far more like products of the plot in which they’re entangled rather than the plot being a product of them and their personal, unusual complications. The acting from all is considerably sharp and nearly everyone looks luminously attractive. Nicole Kidman, as Evelyn, India’s stern and self-indulgent mother, is entertaining. Matthew Goode is appropriately nutty and charismatic, as Uncle Charlie. Mia Wasikowska is subtly expressive and confident in her part as India. She carries the movie sufficiently. Mia’s character is the most compelling of the bunch, yet there aren’t enough layers to the muddled story around her to make her character glide. There is a severely disturbing element to her. India is suggested to be, like her uncle, one pancake shy of a short stack. She loved her father tremendously and she’s a good shot. That is the gist of the character. We don’t get much else.
It is a phrase used perhaps too often, yet Stoker truly does have a style over substance problem. There’s nothing wrong with having only lunatics at the core of your narrative, but when those lunatics possess no real mystery and contribute no thrills or excitement to the pretty scenes they populate, the lunacy becomes beside the point. They then are just crazy people who dress nicely and live in an ostentatious house.
By and large, Stoker begins promisingly enough and promptly moves into jumbled territory. The movie is, of course, a big nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt. That film’s basic plot is part of Stoker’s outline. Of course, director Park takes that story and distorts it to the point of being a distant, very pale imitation of Shadow and thus, becomes an entirely different entity altogether, which apparently was the filmmaker’s intention. Unfortunately, this particular, faraway route is not particularly alluring. It veers down a path with no clear direction or sense of purpose.
The death of one of India’s close relatives near the start, at the hands of Uncle Charlie, is shown in plain sight. Hence, we know, early on, Charlie is a very bad seed which is why it's difficult to accept that it takes the precocious India so long to learn her uncle is a murdering fraud. There is absolutely no question about Charlie. He is a kill you with kindness fellow who then kills you literally, some time later, if necessary, and with a gentle smile on his face. That is a corner of the film’s unfortunate philosophy. Show just about everything and leave little to the imagination. Stoker lays it all out on the table for us in hopes of dazzling with all there is to see and know rather than obscuring the pieces that would best function as a source of uncertainty and tautness.
The movie is an admirable disappointment especially given its damn deliciously enticing trailer. Stoker’s looks great throughout and feels substantially empty. The performances are impressive, though the characters and their dialogue always keep us, the audience, at arm's length. We never get to know the Stokers well enough to care about their respective fates. The tension is virtually nonexistent, there’s not much mystery and very little in the way of thrills. Stoker may hold your attention for a single viewing. Beyond that, there’s no reason to want to return to this world, ever again. Really, Stoker’s inspiration, Shadow of a Doubt, and even Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, are far more worthy of your valuable time than this, a film that believes its considerable beauty and extremely visual calculation compensates for its sizeable lack of a compelling narrative and captivating characters.