Stoker is a film at odds with itself. On paper, it’s a slick piece of neo-gothic thrills, parading its Jane-Eyre/Mysteries of Udolpho (and more) influences, with red rooms, sinister-seeming relatives, fogged-out basements, and driblets of blood.
More plot-fully speaking, you have the mysterious death of a loved one, in this case the father Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney), who leaves his immense estate to his wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). Soon after, Richard’s estranged brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up, taking a break from one of his frequent trips around the world. Charlie tries to reconnect with his brother’s family, seeming to seduce Evelyn but eliciting only hesitation and curious dread from India.
All three play their roles well, with Kidman wandering through her lines as in a daze, transfixed by the appearance of a younger, sleeker version of her husband. Mia is exactly the opposite, dissociated from everything and body. But the clear standout is Goode, who finally has found a role that utterly suits him — however specialized it may be. Kind and pleasant with a chilling, menacing undertone, you’re just waiting for him to explode.
The film takes its time with every reveal, flashing back and forth to set up a scene that will be explained later — sometimes very later — on, going so far as to keep you puzzling over what type of genre it actually is until some time near the midpoint. So much goes into the look, but for what purpose is not clear.
Again, on paper, this is a fantastic film. And despite the hands of director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), it’s salvaged. It’s as if Park has the since that script does most of the work, and he doesn’t like it (or isn’t used to using another man’s script for his film, as it’s his first time doing so), so he fills every shot with a flourish, whether needed or not. Some are there to call attention to themselves, such as lingering on the candles of cake extinguished in a glass cover; others are too on the nose, such as spiders crawling up thighs; and blood spattering all over the local flora.
When Tarantino did it in Django Unchained, it was a similarly stylistic touch — but it worked because it fits his equally stylistic screenplay. Here, the script by Wentworth Miller has style, but the look is not in sync. Perhaps it’s not Park and instead is the cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. Or maybe it is Miller after all, either way, as good as it looks, it only fits with the material occasionally.
Now I don’t have a problem with style over substance, but if a movie is trying to achieve that, I think it’s fair to ask for some consistency, or least to not be constantly pulled in two directions. The tone is in a continuous state of shift, with Goode or Wasikowska pursuing the feel of a thriller and the art direction going overboard into comedy.
On the whole, it works, but only if you can ignore the kid in front of you screaming, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”
Also — there is, to my mind, no known way of stalking pheasants — nor of using a rifle to shoot them if they’re intended to be stuffed. Seriously?