Stoker is not about the author of Dracula, but it’s easy to think so given a director whose previous film, Thirst, centered on a vampire priest. Maybe, to be clearer, this first English-language effort from Korean auteur Park Chan-wook should have been called The Addams Family Shadow of a Doubt. A cartoon-gothic Hitchcock homage sounds plenty accessible, right? Superfluous, too, but in his uniquely aestheticized way, Park just about pulls it off.
The Stokers have seen better days. It’s only after India’s father dies that she discovers he has a brother, who shows up unexpectedly and sort of seduces her, and sort of seduces her mother, too. For India (Mia Wasikowska), already just on the verge of becoming a woman, or maybe a monster, this is a challenging time.
Her dad (Dermot Mulroney) used to take her hunting, and to tell her important things, like, “Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop yourself from doing something worse.” But he never told her other important things, like about that brother. Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) is, to be sure, a rather dashing fellow, if you can get past the penetrating stare and the disappearances and the tendency to hang around the high school parking lot. India’s mother (Nicole Kidman) generally can get past these things, at least at first, but only because she herself is already sort of gone anyway.
And while India may get mopey sometimes, she seems increasingly present. True, somewhere along the line she acquired an aversion to being touched — which is fair enough, as her classmates all seem like aggro date rapists. But Uncle Charlie can help with that. His arrival, however ominous, does at least prompt her to move beyond passively collecting all the pairs of saddle shoes she’s ever grown out of. It’s thanks to his influence that soon we behold the suggestive image of her sharpening a freshly bloodied pencil, among other also suggestive images. Really, because of Uncle Charlie, India blooms. How so is not exactly cause for Stoker family celebration, but maybe it is as things need to be.
These characters don’t much seem like human beings — partly because they’re meant to register as the beastly ciphers of some cryptic fable about sex and death, but mostly because the writing, by Wentworth Miller, seems too stiff. Thankfully the actors all are self-possessed and supremely committed. They also keep the film from becoming lurid, even when it probably should. All told, the best thing about the unnatural triangle that forms between India and her mom and her uncle is the sharpness of its edges.
What a stylish little movie Stoker is, full of technical precision and quiet panache. Through expressive camerawork and adroit editing, its moody aura is meticulously maintained. Scenes just bleed right into each other, sometimes literally. Like Hitchcock, Park does give an impression of extensive storyboarding; rather than actually creeping us out, he assembles an exquisite array of creepiness signifiers. But maybe nowadays that’s all a gothically inclined thriller really can do. It’s just hard to know how much it means to him, and how much of that meaning may have been lost in translation from a non-native filmmaking language. Or did he find himself distracted by wondering if, come to think of it, maybe a Bram Stoker biopic would have been good too?