The best scene in Chan-wook Park’s “Stoker” is not one of its several murders or Hitchcockian set pieces or psychotic outbursts. It’s a piano duet between its two leads, the timid teenager India and her creepy, suspicious uncle Charlie.
She starts, and he joins in, silently squeezing his way onto a cramped piano bench. They play with speed and beauty, stealing glances at one another when not focusing on the keys. Suddenly, he crosses her body to reach the high octave, and the sexual tension is palpable as the music continues. Considering their relationship, it’s a twisted, perverse sensation that turns out to be a dream sequence, but it begins to hint at the tingling feelings of something worse than naughty, and “Stoker” does so with the precision of a ticking metronome.
“Stoker” is the first English film from Director Park, whose “Oldboy” is a recent cult classic that currently sits at #83 on the IMDB Top 250 and is being remade this year by Spike Lee. His violent legacy runs deep, and although “Stoker” minimizes on some of the bloodshed, it’s effortlessly textured with horror movie staples and Hitchcock set pieces. A butcher’s knife, garden shears, an ominous person-long freezer in a dark cellar and a hazy, flickering chandelier lamp paint a familiarly sinister world.
Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” serves as inspiration on a narrative level as well. On India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) 17th birthday, her father is tragically killed in a car wreck. At the funeral, she meets her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a perpetually smiling, unblinking young man with an attractive face and disarming voice. Immediately something rubs the timid, spiteful, skinny and goth India the wrong way, more so because her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) has gotten over husband’s death a bit too quickly with Charlie’s arrival. Coinciding with his arrival, a housekeeper and visiting relative suddenly vanish, and India slowly sinks into even more vicious behavior.
“Shadow of a Doubt” made waves by breaking its young heroine out of a strangely protective shell in dangerous ways. Teresa Wright’s home world was too perfectly odd even for ‘40s living, and Joseph Cotten’s arrival introduced the dark consequences to a freer lifestyle. And in the same way, although “Stoker” operates as a thriller, it’s really best interpreted as a coming-of-age story, or in other terms, a portrait of a killer.
Where Park differs from Hitchcock is in the film’s sexual energy. The picturesque interior of the Stoker household is shot in stately, yet off-kilter framing just begging to be uninhibited and freed. We see India systematically crushing an eggshell on a dinner table and can sense her plotting her own coming out.
Park’s cross-cutting between murders, steamy romance and surreal visions invokes vitality and bloodlust in “Stoker’s” ethos, and it becomes an amazingly elegant, yet perverse combination of two devilish sensations.
The problem however is that the film is so tightly wound that it begins to unravel all too quickly during the film’s several twists and reveals in its finale. It loses focus as it tries to create real world payoffs through a suspicious detective and Kidman’s jealous mother. Kidman has the fire in her belly, but Park under-utilizes her potential and steers away from the “Mommie Dearest” comparisons.
The real standout is Wasikowska, who has become a miniature star playing the tightly wound, timid and pallid heroine in “Jane Eyre” and Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” remake. She has a handful of scenes here that show her adult gravitas and suggest she’s on her way to becoming a young Tilda Swinton.
“Stoker” may not whet the bloodlust of some die hard Park’s fans, but it tingles and pops in other deliciously naughty ways.