Somewhere in Stoker's gorgeous heap of near-absurd imagery, jaw-dropping transitions, domestic melodrama, and suggestive narrative half-threads is a metaphor for the career of its South Korean director Park Chan-wook. In staggers, loops and layers, Stoker's story follows the passage into adulthood of India Stoker (gangled by Mia Wasikowska, whose obsessive performance warrants obsession) while wondering, in an elliptical and inconclusive sort of way, if she is innately evil.
In an opening monologue delivered wistfully enough to immediately tint the film with camp indulgence, the just-18-year-old India tells us that her ears hear what others can't, that "just as a flower doesn't choose its color, so we don't choose what we are going to be." We see her playing outside, scurrying up trees, seemingly possessed or feral, but really, she's just kind of weird.
Perhaps it is destiny that Park would make Hollywood movies after the acclaim and cult fever inspired by his South Korean productions, especially Oldboy, which Spike Lee is remaking. His first U.S. picture, Stoker superficially seems like a huge sellout move. He's secured an A-list name, Nicole Kidman, and the title evokes Bram Stoker, the Dracula author, and with that the lucrative genre of a goth girl going bump in the night. The early scenes of a young woman in mysterious transformation suggest that's where things are going.
But it's all misdirection. Stoker is not a vampire movie, but an abstract coming-of-age yarn. Kidman, as India's borderline catatonic mother, Evelyn, is barely present by design, more Stepford than her character in The Stepford Wives. Yes, Park is progressing, but like his protagonist, he's being really fucking weird about it. It's safe to assume that this bait and switch is deliberate, as Park is an extremely deliberate filmmaker. He's saying, "Here's my Hollywood vampire movie, except I left out the vampires."
The film's great feat is its facilitation of empathy between India and the audience. With a seemingly unending stream of tricks up his sleeve, Park telegraphs the way innocence fades into sensory overload. We, too, experience India's heightened senses that arise from a "lifetime of longing." Egg shells crackle against tables. Metronomes thwack our eardrums. One gorgeous image (a close-up of Kidman's brushed-straight hair) blends into another (grass tall enough to hide in).
Some scenes are put together briskly cutting back and forth between several points of view or several different points in time, hurtling and retracing, so that the order of events becomes utterly unclear. These scenes ratchet up suspense—midway through, you have no idea what is going to happen next because it's often unclear what the hell is going on. It's not unlike the disorientation that comes from spinning yourself around in a circle.
When you are capable of graceful curlicues like Park, why not show them off? It all looks great; it all moves like it's already in the trance it wants to put you in. Stoker is a hell of a thing to sit back and watch unspool into tangles.
It may test the patience of those who want something linear or literal. What I gleaned from it was a story about a young woman discovering how much power she has in the world. Her transition is more fascinating than most regular-girl-to-fanged-girl yarn. Park's immediate reference point is Alfred Hitchock's 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt, as this too concerns a long-lost Uncle Charlie (here, he's Matthew Goode) reentering the life of his family and wreaking havoc. But it shares its bildungsroman spirit with Kenneth Lonergan's 2011 movie Margaret, and feels similarly, gloriously messy.
Here, too, the female protagonist is under siege, constantly threatened with violation by elements specific (her bullying classmates, a spider that disappears into her crotch, her obviously troubled uncle) and vague (the entire world, really, as she "hates to be touched," according to her mother). Beyond the vividness of the imagery and the way every scene is infused with a creepiness that rarely develops into actual horror, the satisfaction of the movie, I suppose, lies in watching her triumph over the adversity that envelops her.
There are sequences here, particularly between India and her uncle, that are indelible. The way their sexual tension plays out in a did-it-or-didn't-it-happen piano duet is a titillating flirtation with bad taste. A scene of India masturbating in the shower, intercut with flashbacks (or are they flashfowards?) to a dude on top of her having his neck snapped by a belt after his failed attempt to rape her (this may be turning her on, depending on which of Park's several images you choose for the montage theorizing) drops the flirtation and steamrolls to third base.
Stoker is lurid, ridiculous and astonishing. It is not a great movie, but it is a great thing to behold and a bold entry into Hollywood filmmaking from a bold filmmaker. As India's dad tells her an what is certainly a flashback, "Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse." It's as good a summary of Park's work as any.