It's no understatement to say film fans were excited when Oldboy director Park announced he was making his first English language feature film. However, it brings me absolutely no pleasure to reveal that Stoker, written by Miller (he of Prison Break fame), is a disappointment.
The story revolves around 18-year-old India (Wasikowska) who is left reeling following the untimely death of her father Richard (Mulroney). With a distant (and cold) mother, played by Kidman, India's life takes a turn for the odd when estranged uncle Charlie (Goode) turns up on the day of the funeral. While Charlie attempts to bring a male influence to the family, India begins to believe everything isn't as it seems and questions exactly what he wants. As dark secrets are revealed, rather than being horrified by what's happening, India actually finds herself infatuated with her mysterious uncle.
To counter the disappointment felt with Stoker, there is still some impressive work on display - mostly by Park himself, the score from Clint Mansell and Chung-hoon Chung's gorgeous cinematography. Park definitely brings his genius approach to duels involving India and Charlie. In fact, when they first meet, much of the dialogue is short, sharp, succinct sentences that lay the foundations for what becomes a battle of wits between the teen and her uncle. Every statement resembles a jab at the rival as they attempt to gain an upper hand on each other. But that's nothing compared to the quite stunning sequence involving the pair playing a piano. At first it appears to quite innocent until it becomes apparent that the entire scene is an allegory for sex, thus pointing towards an incestuous link between uncle and niece. It's astounding to watch and Wasikowska is fantastic in portraying a girl almost being taken advantage of. There's a fairytale quality to the relationship with India taking the form of the forbidden fruit while Charlie is the bad apple, intent on poisoning the mind of his young target.
Elsewhere there are glorious examples of the creativity Park brings to proceedings - a scene involving hair being brushed seamlessly switches to India & her father crawling through reeds in a field as they hunt. It's sublime. However, all that work is undone by a narrative that takes forever to get going, and when it finally clicks into gear the pay-off is underwhelming. The story isn't helped by Kidman's inability to bring any believability to her role as India's mother, Evelyn. You'd think that someone who comes across as cold and distant whenever she's onscreen would be perfect for the role. Unfortunately, Kidman isn't engaging and, to be frank, robotic. Goode, meanwhile, starts off well enough as the creepy uncle. What's he hiding? And why doesn't he want anyone talking about his past? When he quietly walks into scenes, it's initially unnerving. But then he does it again. And again. And again. It becomes repetitive to the point it feels like he can't do much else.
The shining light in the cast is Wasikowska. She can play the withdrawn teen with her eyes shut, but it's her ability to effortlessly become something more sinister that impresses. Closed off and confrontational to begin with, her switch to becoming the focal point of sexual tension reveals a darker side to her nature. Stoker asks questions about whether bad blood can be passed on through the genes but the entire exercise is hampered by the snail's-paced execution of the story and some incredibly boring central performances. It's borderline passable as a psychological-drama. As a horror, it doesn't even register.
The saving grace is Wasikowska's performance and Park's gorgeous direction. Ultimately, though, Park has become yet another director whose first foray into English language cinema fails to match the heights reached in films in his native language.
SECOND OPINION | Stuart O'Connor ★★★★ Stoker is beautiful, intriguing, lush, moving, unsettling and compelling. It's a tale of murder, mystery, double-dealing and yes, even incest, that's been told a hundred times before. But Park brings a clever set of fresh eyes to it, giving us something that we haven't seen before. In places, he seems to be channeling Hitchcock; in a couple of scenes, Goode even looks the spitting image of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Kidman is good, but Wasikowska is great. Stoker has an American gothic feel to it, which is surprising for Park's first English-language film..
EXTRAS ★★½ There are three deleted scenes (10:01); the featurette Stoker: A Filmmaker's Journey (27:50); the stills gallery Photography By Mary Ellen Mark; the five-part making-of featurette Theatrical Behind The Scenes; the stills gallery London Theatre Design; footage from the Red Carpet Premiere (15:38); theatrical trailers and TV spots.