‘Stoker’: Stoked

February 26, 2013

stoker
Chan-wook Park’s “Stoker” is audaciously, in-your-face creepy and exhilarating in a way few films have been since David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” Because it’s not just the creepiness – but the way Park gets you involved in his world so that you can’t look away.

Written by Wentworth Miller (yeah, the guy from “Prison Break”) and Erin Cressida Wilson (whose credit reads “contributing writer”), “Stoker” is a Southern Gothic given a distinctive sense of dread. Park’s dynamic camera – active in ways that few Western directors seem to have discovered yet – keeps you aware of its movements, even as it forces you to contend with the feelings that those movements help create. As I wrote after I saw it at Sundance in January, watching this film can feel like taking an adrenaline shot to the cerebral cortex.

Park, whose films run from the brutal gangster-revenge movie “Oldboy” to the vampire version of Zola’s “Therese Raquin” called “Thirst,” wanders into the kind of Southern backdrop that inspired everything from “A Streetcar Named Desire” to “Night of the Hunter.” The Stoker family live in Tennessee, outside Nashville from the looks of it, and that Southern blend of charm and menace permeates the place.

Daughter India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) seems strangely distant after the news of the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney) in a car accident. She is emotionally remote, living in her own private buffer zone as she wanders through the funeral gathering, letting her hothouse flower of a mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), cope with the demands of family and friends.

India, however, is intrigued by the arrival of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). She never knew her father had a brother; he’s never been spoken about in the Stoker home, though he seems interested in and protective of India. He’s been traveling all these years, she’s been told, though where and why seem to be off-limit subjects.

But little things about him convince her that there is something unsavory about Uncle Charlie. Yet while he seems to hover over her, he also seems like something of a protector – finally revealing himself in a surprising way when he rescues her from a high school romeo (Alden Ehrenreich of “Beautiful Creatures”).

Not that there haven’t been other strange things happening since Uncle Charlie’s arrival. The Stoker family housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) disappears, as does a visiting aunt (Jackie Weaver). Both of them seemed to have an issue with Uncle Charlie – connection?

The feverish quality of Park’s story-telling, the way his camera glides around a scene as it dials up the tension, the way his images dissolve imaginatively from one into another – he is not necessarily reinventing this game, just turning it eagerly and aggressively to his own ends. And then he turns out a film that feels like a leap forward, even for him.

Yet he manages it mostly without the kind of graphically violent images that have provided shocking moments in his earlier films. It’s not that such images aren’t suggested – just that Park chooses not to show most of the violence itself, only its aftermath. Still, there are plenty of scary, thrilling moments in this film, if only because it keeps finding ways to surprise you, right up to the final moments.

Wasikowska has played variations on this character before – withdrawn but roiling inside, willing to stand up for herself but not without some prodding. Hello, “Jane Eyre”? The difference is that India Stoker is a contemporary female, not one from the 19th century. She’ll not only stand her ground, she’ll strike back. Wasikowska finds the devilish side of this young woman, though never in an obvious way.

Matthew Goode is one of those British actors who hops back and forth between playing Brits (and Irishmen) and Americans. He’s probably better known in England than in the U.S., though I’ve liked him in a lot of things, ranging from “Brideshead Revisited” to a spiky little noir, “The Lookout.” He’s got that perfect blend of the inviting and the menacing, like Joseph Cotten in Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” from which this film clearly draws some of its inspiration.

Kidman, meanwhile, is wonderfully nervy as the mother who doesn’t seem to see Charlie in the same way her daughter does. Park keeps the viewer guessing about his intentions until the twisted and bloody finale.

“Stoker” may divide critics, as well as viewers. Will the average audience appreciate the deferred satisfactions of “Stoker” and its ability to string you along with atmospherics and sheer story-telling mojo? In the world in my head, the answer is yes.

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