Here's how I like to imagine the way that the making of Stoker, the only vaguely indie-ish new thriller from Fox Searchlight, went down: Screenwriter Wentworth Miller (yes, the same Wentworth Miller who got Mariah Carey all hot and bothered in a music video and then spent four seasons breaking out of various fake prisons on television) turned in his script, and then the studio took one look at it and realized its wannabe Hitchcockian tale of a twisted family was never going to fly if played straight. So they bought playfully perverse South Korean director Park Chan-wook a plane ticket from Seoul to the movie's Tennessee set, whereupon they handed him the screenplay and told him to just go nuts with it. The result is one of the most beautifully directed bad movies I've seen since the immortal Brian De Palma trifecta of Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars and Femme Fatale (known unofficially as De Palma's Trilogy of Awesome Awfulness). Thanks to Park's endless creativity behind the camera, it's impossible to look away from Stoker, even when what's happening on the screen is truly risible.
In addition to being his English-language debut, Stoker is also the first feature Park has directed that he didn't also write and it's likely that much of his off-screen impishness was a means of keeping himself awake and engaged while telling a story that's pretty thin soup. Miller's narrative opens with teenage outcast India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and her equally oddball mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) attending the funeral of Stoker family patriarch Richard (Dermot Mulroney), who perished in a car accident just weeks ago on his daughter's 18th birthday. Fortunately, his long-lost brother and international man of business Charles (Matthew Goode) has returned to the Stoker family homestead to look after his sibling's wife and child.
With his movie star looks and potent charisma, Charles makes a big impression on Evelyn, who Kidman plays as a distant relation of Tennessee Williams's Maggie the Cat -- all "look at me" neediness and voracious sexual appetite that hasn't been fed in some time. But India senses that there's something not quite right about her uncle; maybe it's his ever-present smirk or maybe it's the way he cooks elaborate meals without every actually taking a bite himself or maybe it's the way he keeps toying with his leather belt, suggesting that his uses for it go beyond holding his pants up. Whatever the reason, the dude is obviously not right in the head, but that's okay, because India isn't either. So the two circle each other warily, unsure if they're going to be mortal enemies or maybe -- just maybe -- partners in crime.
Park's showmanship is front and center from the title sequence -- which is tricked out with freeze frames that pause the action at artfully random moments -- and continues until the credits roll... backwards, of course. His inexhaustible bag of tricks includes composing deliberately off-kilter frames, willfully ignoring the 180-degree rule, abruptly changing the point-of-view in mid-scene and all sorts of unexpected cross-fades, the best of which allows a close-up shot of Wasikowska combing Kidman's strawberry-blonde hair to bleed into the image of a field of tall grass waving in the wind and colored red by the setting sun. If one weren't familiar with Park's work, it's entirely possible that they'd assume he'd never held a camera before and was just pointing it around the set at random. But Stoker's playfulness is entirely of a piece with his Korean films, particularly the infamous Vengeance Trilogy, which consists of Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy (recently remade by Spike Lee) and Lady Vengeance. In a medium that typically is thought of as requiring careful precision, Park's method suggests that great art can be manufactured out of chaos.
Not that Stoker ultimately qualifies as great art, mind you. As much fun as the movie is to watch, it's also seriously stupid and races full-bore into high camp in a way that Park's previous movies rarely did. There were broadly ridiculous comic elements in the Vengeance Trilogy to be sure, but they were still rooted in strong characterizations and carried an undertone of genuine tragedy. In contrast, everything about Stoker feels artificial and gimmicky, from Miller's underbaked screenplay to the too-arch-by-half performances. Kidman and Goode in particular are so cartoonish, you can practically see the word bubbles appearing above their heads. Wasikowska, at least, finds a quieter register of self-awareness; she clearly recognizes that India is a crock of a character, but still makes an effort to communicate human emotions. With his unpredictable sensibility and technical skill, Park may have turned this material into something watchable, but that's not necessarily the same thing as turning it into something good.
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