I've never much liked the phrase "style over substance" to disparage a film. Only too often, "substance" is what weighs down a movie (somehow the word makes me think of suet), while "style" is what makes it float. And I have no problem – when it comes to an entirely airy production like Stoker – with style being practically all that a film has to offer in the way of substance.
Stoker is the American debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose Oldboy (2003) – notorious for its octopus-noshing sequence – was one of the weirdest thrillers ever. His new film is also strange, though nowhere near as visceral. It's a coming-of-age chiller about a solitary young woman, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who lives with her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), a woman of cut-glass nerves and waxwork beauty. India is introduced in images of eerie and somewhat precious rural lyricism – wandering among wildflowers and palely loitering, which seems pretty much the Stoker family business.
As the story begins, India's father (Dermot Mulroney) has died, and long-lost Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up at his funeral, tossing flirtatious glances at Evie. Resentful India retreats to her bedroom to contemplate her collection of black-and-white bowling shoes. Never mind why, but the differently sized shoes look fantastic arranged in a circle around India – that's what they call style over substance.
In his Korean films, such as the elegantly deranged Lady Vengeance, Park's MO is to craft gruesomely perverse thriller plots and wrap them in offbeat, exquisite mises en scène; he is, in effect, Asia's Almodovar. Stoker, however, has next to nothing going for it narratively. The script – by Wentworth Miller, formerly lead baldie on TV's Prison Break – is a flimsy fancy about a young girl's repulsion at adult ways. Horrified by Mama and Charlie carrying on after Dad's death, India is a female Hamlet. But the film is also a knowing remake of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, laced with nods to Carrie.
Park piles on the visual frills – slinking camera moves, close-ups of spiders, and some genuinely unexpected uses of CGI for segueing between scenes. A magnificently outré shot follows a comb through Kidman's hair, which suddenly but seamlessly – and quite gratuitously – morphs into a field of grass. Stoker grows more florid by the minute, whether regaling us with the fancy handwriting on Charlie's letters, or with Kidman reclining in a flower-filled boudoir. Park pursues a manner of detached visual cool, yet works up a mood that's just this side of hysteria. This is American Gothic for aesthetes – as if Tennessee Williams had created The Addams Family.
As for suspense, who cares about Uncle Charlie's terrible secret? Not Park, it seems; he blows the gaffe surprisingly early, as if to admit he's really more interested in the aquarium-green walls of the Stoker house, or in Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra duetting on the soundtrack.
He doesn't seem that fussed about the acting, either, with the cast all playing familiar archetypes. Wasikowska does the fey, gloomy virgin with chill expertise, and Goode is serviceably smarmy as a preppie ephebe with a touch of James Mason. The one anomaly is Kidman; she simmers, squirms and pouts as a stately tarnished belle, but her features are so stiffly polished that the more expression she works up, the more she seems to be struggling against an overdose of embalming fluid. It's mesmerisingly awkward, yet I can't deny that it enhances Stoker's unhealthy fascination.
The film is fabulously designed by Thérèse DePrez and shot with morbid succulence by Park's regular cameraman Chung Chung-hoon. At one point, the soundtrack gives us the thunderous cracking of a hard-boiled egg – and that's what Park is out to do, to crunch our nerves, to give us a frisson that's as much about stylistic rapture as about conventional genre effect. Stoker may be eggshell-thin, but it's a refined anomaly that's hard to dismiss.
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