South Korean filmmaker and critical darling Park Chan-wook is best known for his Vengeance Trilogy, the early-Aughties run of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. In his English-language debut, he demonstrates a continued appetite for sort-of revenge plots. Am I whiffing with “sort-of”? Sure, but I’m just taking a cue from the film, a stylishly plated but nutrition-deficient stew of influences and ambiguities.
An opening voiceover introduces 18-year-old India Stoker (Wasikowska) as she meditates on the divide between childhood and maturity. India is close-lipped, inscrutable, and resistant to touch; she also claims to have an acute sensitivity to aural and visual stimuli, a fact that seems to exist solely to justify the hotdogging camerawork. When India’s beloved father dies in a freak accident, her Uncle Charlie (Goode) – whom she’s never met before, or even heard of, in fact – moves into the family home, presumably to help along the grieving process for India and her mother Eva (Kidman, waxy and disappointingly waved off from full-on Miss Havisham theatrics).
Maybe you’re thinking: Huh. Uncle Charlie? As in, the same name of the murderous uncle in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt? This Uncle Charlie, as played with unflappable cool by Goode, wears a secret smile throughout as though he just farted and knows in about half a minute everybody else is gonna figure it out, after he’s made his unflappably cool exit.
Or maybe your head-scratching started sooner: What’s the deal with Park Chan-wook and/or his screenwriter, Wentworth Miller, settling on a name that so immediately puts one in mind of Dracula scribbler Bram Stoker? What’s that about? Is there some blood-sucking metaphor embedded in all the extreme focus pulls and sullen looks from India?
Once the film gets cooking, the questions never stop. For instance: When you find the dead body of someone you love, isn’t your first call to the cops? How does an emotionally stunted teenager who’s only worn saddle shoes suddenly stand upright in stilettos? And is this going to turn into a weird psychosexual thing? I’m still stumped by the first two; as for the latter – an emphatic yes.
Further: Is it really wise to market Stoker as a general-audience thriller? At Tuesday’s sneak screening, the audience tittered nervously at Park’s arthouse-friendly freeze frames. I’m not trying to be snotty – quite the opposite: General audiences are more freewheeling at calling bullshit. And while a “sophisticated” aesthetic should absolutely be welcomed, filmmakers better make sure they lavish as much attention on fashioning a considered narrative as they do on that pretty spray of blood on flowers.
One last query, scribbled in the dark as the film made another hairpin yet easily foreseeable turn: Is this going to be worth it? Not particularly. Oh, but how a transition from hair strands to wavy grass nearly had me doing somersaults with delight. Stoker, rather improbably, manages to find the handshake place between predictable and confounding. And that’s … an achievement?