“Stoker,” written by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson (contributing writer), directed by Chan-wook Park, 99 minutes, rated R.
There are a lot of foreign filmmakers who struggle with the language barrier when attempting to break into American cinema. For example, even some of the modern greats such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet have Hollywood duds like “Alien Resurrection,” pulled in by the lure of the blockbuster studio machines, heedlessly taking on projects doomed to fail for one reason or another.
However, based on his English language debut “Stoker,” Chan-wook Park, who found international success with his 2003 Korean film “Oldboy,” seems to be one of the exceptions.
“Stoker” is the story of India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a straight-A introvert who is a natural-born hunter, known for going on expeditions with her wealthy father (Dermot Mulroney). Their relationship is special, and when he dies in a car accident on India’s 18th birthday, she goes deep into mourning while her alcoholic mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), sleeps past noon, oblivious and unaffected, trivializing the matter by trying to cheer her daughter up with ice cream and shopping trips.
More troubling, with the absence of India’s father comes the arrival of her mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a world traveler unfamiliar to India and her mother. While Evelyn welcomes the younger model of her deceased husband with open arms, India keeps a watchful eye on him, as it becomes clear Charlie has a secret. What, exactly, is his secret, and why is Charlie so fascinated by his niece?
That core mystery is part of what makes “Stoker” so effective as a psychological thriller, but its underlying gothic horror atmosphere and family dysfunction make it something more. There’s a striking resemblance between Norman Bates and Uncle Charlie, who, played by the exceptional Goode, is a more suave incarnation of Hitchcock’s disturbed creation.
Mia Wasikowska is subdued in her leading role as India, letting the character’s demons come to light naturally, rather than forcefully, while Nicole Kidman proves yet again why she is still considered one of the top actresses working today. Not since “Rabbit Hole” has she been this good.
Although “Stoker’s” reveal isn’t quite as strong as it was in “Oldboy,” the script from “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson plays to Park’s strengths. It’s a bloody, cerebral and discomforting film where the ultimate consequences are, for the most part, out of the characters’ hands. In many ways, “Stoker” is like a Greek tragedy. There’s nothing you can do but watch it all unfold.