Editor’s note: This review originally ran as part of our Sundance 2013 coverage, but we’re re-running it to coincide with its arrival in limited theatrical release on 3/1.
Park Chan-wook‘s films are held in deservedly high regard for various reasons. They’re often filled with desperate characters trapped in twisted, madcap situations, and while their worlds are violent and deadly places they’re never less than beautiful. He has an eye for framing and staging intensely attractive scenes of people laid bare emotionally and physically.
His first English-language film, Stoker, opens in US theaters next month, and it’s already one of the year’s most visually appealing and strikingly stylish films.
Unfortunately that’s pretty much all it is.
India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) father has died suddenly, but before she and her emotionally estranged mother (Nicole Kidman) can even begin to grieve, an uncle (Matthew Goode) she was previously unaware of arrives on their doorstep. Soon India’s already fractured world takes an ominous turn as people begin to disappear and Uncle Charlie’s interest in her moves in some inappropriate directions.
Charlie has been away overseas, but his brother’s death, which coincidentally coincides with India’s 18th birthday, is enough of a reason to bring him back to his family. Or so he says. India finds herself alternately repulsed and seduced by the man, but when the housekeeper goes missing and more mysteries present themselves she becomes intent on discovering his true motivations. Her subsequent actions hint that the crazy may just run in the family.
This is one beautifully crafted film. From the opening credits (which feature a brilliant and assuredly intentional placement of Goode’s name) to one of the most perfectly executed dissolves to grace screens in years to a simple crane shot of a child making sand angels, you’d be hard pressed to find a single frame of film that doesn’t entice and delight the eye. Clint Mansell‘s score adds to the beauty, but it’s a piano duet between India and Charlie that stands out. I’m unsure if that piece is an existing one or by Mansell (so feel free to educate me in the comments), but the scene is a stunner.
Park’s penchant for stylistic violence remains, albeit in an abridged form, with shots of punctured blisters, bloody pencils and belts removed in extremely menacing fashion. But due either to Hollywood restrictions or the film’s short run time (the shortest of Park’s career) the violence is often bloodless and abbreviated.
For all its beauty though, the story and characters are left wanting. Wentworth Miller‘s script, at least as filmed, sets up some diverting narratives only to shortchange or avoid them altogether. India’s dramatic arc is fractured and erratic, and it results in an incomplete and unsatisfying coming of age tale.
Charlie’s motivational reveal leads to some deliriously creepy flashbacks, but it falls short in the story department after the imagined terrors promised us by the setup. It’s a bit too simple, something that could be said for much of the story. It often feels like event milestones (like “India stabs classmate” or “nosy relative is dispatched”) were targeted and achieved with no concern for how to actually get from one to the next. Park’s love of the loopy is still on display, but the connective tissue that would normally give depth and weight to the antics just isn’t there.
Stoker is lesser Park, but like lesser Fincher or lesser Nolan it’s still a film that shows a master at work. It just happens to be a master working in a language he’s unfamiliar with on a time table shorter than he’s used to with a script from the star of Prison Break…
The Upside: Park Chan-wook’s visual brilliance is on full display here; Matthew Goode does creepy quite well; wonderfully warped sense of humor; Mia Wasikowska takes a shower
The Downside: Never achieves narrative or emotional connections; lacks internal logic; lead character’s actions are erratic and without purpose
On the Side: Dermot Mulroney is in the movie too, but he speaks fewer than ten words