India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) was not prepared to lose her father and best friend Richard (Dermot Mulroney) in a tragic auto accident. The solitude of her woodsy family estate, the peace of her tranquil town, and the unspoken somberness of her home life are suddenly upended by not only this mysterious accident, but by the sudden arrival of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never knew existed. When Charlie moves in with her and her emotionally unstable mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), India thinks the void left by her father's death is finally being filled by his closet bloodline. Soon after his arrival, India comes to suspect that this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives. Yet instead of feeling outrage or horror, this friendless young woman becomes increasingly infatuated with him. 

Korean maestro's English debut lacks substance.

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first English-language film, Stoker, which premiered at Sundance last week, makes notable display of his English-language influences. First there’s the title, which refers both to the tony Stoker family—teen daughter India (Mia Wasikowska, mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), recently deceased dad Richard (Dermot Mulroney), and Richard’s errant brother Charlie (Matthew Goode)—and the Irish author of Dracula, whose gothic themes are in full swelter here.

The excess [...] bleeds into camp with disarming frequency.

The character of Charlie, who shows up at his brother’s funeral after a decade’s long absence, echoes that of the insinuating Uncle Charlie played by Joseph Cotten in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. There, as in Stoker, Uncle Charlie installs himself in the family home, and develops an obsessive, near-incestuous bond with his niece. And a prurient focus on India’s black-and-white saddle shoes—she receives a new pair every year from a mysterious donor—and Charlie’s pretended interest in the languishing but very rich Evelyn are clear and yet somewhat confusing allusions to Nabokov’s Lolita.

During the post-screening discussion 'Director Park," as his cast referred to him, mentioned that the saddle shoes were his addition to a Hollywood script by actor Wentworth Miller. Park, speaking through a translator, demurred when an audience member congratulated him for 'out-Hitchcock-ing Hitchcock." Moments later Wasikowska noted how rare it is, in 'modern filmmaking," to work with a director whose vision is 'wholly his own."

The most conspicuous problem with Stoker, an outrageously stylised murder psychodrama, involves the partial digestion of its influences. Least convincing of all are the parts that could be claimed as wholly its own. Perhaps rather than persuaded we are meant to be pleased to eat Stoker’s atmosphere of sensual menace with a spoon. But all that taste numbs the palette pretty quickly, and the experience feels a bit like waiting, after two hours of fussy table settings and re-settings between elaborate but curiously unsatisfying courses, for a master chef to please for the love of god finally send out dessert.

And that is when you are not choking on the excess, which bleeds into camp with disarming frequency. Charlie, it should be clear from the berserk look in his eye, is not what he seems. Initially repulsed by and suspicious of him, India, sullen and lyrical, is increasingly drawn to the homicidal maniac in Charlie and in herself. In one scene this arousal is drawn to a literal climax. Rather than wedding the story to its overheated style and drawing the viewer in an unholy matrimony, the moment just feels ludicrous, and things creep forward in this fashion—awkward and irretrievably misaligned.

Stoker was one of the few films to premiere with distribution bumpers—from Fox Searchlight—already intact. Fans of the director will probably thrill to the icy, murderous vibe and serpentine camerawork. Fans of Jacki Weaver, who appears as a concerned aunt for about the length of an ill-timed bathroom break, will feel punked. I sympathise with both camps, but my greatest disappointment and surprise with Stoker was in not being moved to passion either way.