Park Chan-Wook’s first American feature film comes with a lot of expectations. The director of such acclaimed Korean films as "Old Boy" and "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," Park’s work is highly stylized and usually includes graphic violence and disturbing situations. So it’s no surprise that the script for his new film "Stoker" written by actor Wentworth Miller ("Prison Break"), would appeal to him.
The coming-of-age story of an odd girl named India (Mia Wasikowska) whose father (Dermot Mulroney) has just been killed in a car accident and whose icy mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) continues on as if nothing has happened. Living in a palatial estate somewhere in New England, India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) arrives at the funeral and ends up staying. Charming, but clearly a creepster, Charlie is immediately fixated on India, and she on him. Having just turned eighteen, but repressed in many ways, Charlie’s arrival signals an intellectual and sexual awakening in her. But when things get devious, murderous, and downright unsettling, India’s coming-of-age might include more things than she bargained for.
The story is contained mostly to the family estate, but Park’s expert cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung uses wide-screen effectively to make it seem as if their home is endless. The film is truly gorgeous, calling to mind Terrance Malick, yet displaying an unsettling slickness that fills every frame with a dread for what may soon come.
The script by Miller is full of symbolism and purposely stilted dialogue that would actually fit the stage quite well. However Park’s directing style is audacious and mesmerizing calling to mind the early masters of cinema while displaying his own signature brand. And herein is the problem.
The film itself is all style and no substance. I think there will be a certain group of theatre-goers and film-lovers that will take to this film with great passion. It seems important. It seems original. It appears ground-breaking. But as the film heads into the third act, we suddenly realize that every curiosity, mystery, and disturbing interaction is boiling down to a finale we can see coming a mile away. Once the first big reveal is granted (though handled splendidly), we realize that this is something we’ve seen before.
And once that was established, I kept waiting for the twists to come and for Park’s sensibilities to work their magic. For anyone that has seen "Old Boy" you understand the directions that man will go. Here, however, he doesn’t. It’s all a bit simple and unsurprising. Even the final scene is a no-brainer, yet some in the audience seemed to be shocked at a final act of violence. How it was a shock I’m not sure, when the performances telegraph it thirty seconds before it happens.
Ultimately, this falls down to a script that doesn’t delve deep enough into the characters to make them relatable. Why is India such an odd girl? She’s practically Wednesday Addams, yet she had a tight relationship with her father, so she clearly had love in her life. Sure, mom isn’t warm and fuzzy, but to become such an oddity - there had to be something more.
But we never learn anything. Not even Evelyn becomes well-rounded enough to understand. At one point she discusses living in such a big house with no responsibilities and how it bored her. But we don’t understand why. What did her husband do that afforded them the life they had? Why did she stay with him? What was she looking for in her life? And why was she so cold toward her daughter? And as for Charlie. We get his history, but more questions arise once we know the truth about him. Questions we never really get the answers to.
With answers to these questions, the expertise of the cinematography, direction, and exquisite production design by Therese DePrez would have meant something more. Overt symbolism isn’t a substitute for getting to know fully realized characters. A spider travelling up the leg of India (three times) and finally heading toward her crotch is a bit of an eye-roll. "Something creepy is going to get ’inside’ her." We get it. Charlie gives her saddle shoes for her seventeenth birthday, until he finally gives her alligator pumps when she turns eighteen. Yes. She is ready to morph into a new woman. You don’t have to overdo it.
But overdo it, Park does. This style works in his other films that are almost operatic in their over-the-top plots and styles. This film, however, is effectively a chamber drama about a weird family that explodes into violence. You will be stunned and awe-struck for the first hour, dazzled by the technical display and the performances that are all great. But underneath it there is no heartbeat. There is no soul, nothing to latch onto. It’s all setting and surface. This is disappointing because Park is an exemplary director and deserves better material to display his talents.