Slow-burning Southern thriller
'India, who are you?" a frosty and flummoxed Nicole Kidman asks Mia Wasikowska, who is wandering in a dreamy storm cloud - in the role of the just-turned-18 daughter, India - in Stoker. Then again, Kidman's Evelyn doesn't seem to know who anyone is. "Charlie, who in the world are you?" she earlier inquired of Matthew Goode, who plays her brother-in-law, and who shows up unexpectedly at the funeral of, yes, his brother, her husband, India's father.
Life at the Stokers' steamy Southern mansion is full of questions: What's with India and her collection of saddle shoes? What's with those hard-boiled eggs she rolls around on the kitchen table, pressing hard until the eggshells crack? Where did that old housekeeper run off to?
A beautifully twisted, slow-burning psychothriller that may or may not all be taking place inside India's head, Stoker marks South Korean cult director Chan-wook Park's inaugural English language venture. The man behind The Vengeance Trilogy (Spike Lee is remaking the middle installment, Oldboy), Park's work dazzles with its visual artistry, its immaculately framed tableaux. And it shocks with its violence, its sprays and splatters of blood.
Stoker is no different.
A kind of Hitchcockian gothic in wide-screen, seductive, supersaturated color, Stoker - no relation to Bram (at least, not literally) - follows Wasikowska's pale and solitary teen as she struggles to come to terms with her dad's death, and with the irksome intrusion of Uncle Charlie into her life.
Beaming his goggle eyes in her direction, Goode's Charlie is new to India. She had no idea her father had a brother. And now, here he is, preparing elaborate meals for the freshly bereaved and making himself very much at home. He even dons India's dad's tennis whites for some racket-batting with Evelyn.
What is his racket, exactly?
The first half of Stoker, filled with gorgeously composed shots of fields and woods, birds and bugs, of the billowing rooms of the Stokers' sun-splashed house, is slow and spooky. (It's like K-horror Terrence Malick!) Plenty of meaningful looks - of menace, of desire, of profound annoyance - are exchanged. Evelyn and Charlie appear to be getting rather intimate, while India and Charlie sit down at the piano for an impromptu duet. They could call the piece (scored by Philip Glass) "The Incest Suite, for Four Hands."
Then, in Stoker's second half, all the buildup gets blown up, and viewers are either going to stick with Park's increasingly over-the-top and creepy scenarios, or they're going to be turned off altogether. I stuck with it, despite a couple of truly unpleasant scenes (one of which begins with a midnight walk in the woods, India and a boy from her high school art class), and an inexcusably hammy flashback involving Charlie and India's father (Dermot Mulroney). And then there are way-back flashbacks to the brothers' childhood days, by way of explanation, or exposition, or exploitation, or all of the above.
Wasikowska, without saying much, oozes an artsy lonely-girl vibe - but she's witty about it, too. Kidman's China doll features work just right - she's almost inhuman, absolutely cold. And Goode struts around with a sly smile and those big, sparkling eyes.
"What do you want from me?" India quite rightly asks of him early on.
"To be friends," Uncle Charlie replies.
"We don't need to be friends," she says. "We're family."