The less you know going into "Stoker," South Korean director Park Chan-wook's stylishly macabre horror-tale-cum-family-drama, the more fun there is to be derived from sitting back and letting its mysteries unfold. The film marks the English-language debut of the notoriously bloodthirsty filmmaker behind "The Vengeance Trilogy" (which includes the cult-classic "Oldboy") and the vampire thriller "Thirst." In his latest film, half of the suspense comes from waiting to see exactly where the story is headed (although it's always obvious that it's nowhere good).
As the film begins, sullen, teenaged outcast India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska, of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland") has just lost her father in car accident, leaving her alone to share an enormous house with only her cold, distant mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and a kindly old housekeeper as company. At the funeral, her mother introduces her to Charlie (Matthew Goode, all cold, dead eyes lurking behind a wide, toothy grin), an uncle she's never met. Uncle Charlie immediately seems to have an unnaturally close relationship with India's mother, which naturally upsets the young girl and arouses her suspicion — especially when he turns his attentions toward India herself. Instead of choosing to keep her distance from her uncle, India is drawn closer to Charlie by his intriguing underlying darkness.
The film's three leads are uniformly great, finding just the right tone in their performances to match the heightened reality of the film that surrounds them; they constantly straddle the line between restrained and over the top. The actors are able to find just the right notes to play during the film's many uncomfortably tense scenes that are often played out entirely through meaningful glances. Kidman's icy demeanor has rarely been so effective, and Goode's wholesome good looks work chillingly as a mask that doesn't quite cover the evil underneath. The film makes no attempt to suggest that Charlie might be anything but bad news, but the suspense comes in the waiting to find out who he is, what he's after, and why.
Wasikowska is able to take a character who makes some, shall we say, questionable choices and give us just enough insight into her mindset that her actions make perfect sense. Oscar-nominee Jackie Weaver ("Silver Linings Playbook") also shows up in a brief role as a great-aunt whose fumbling attempts at warning Evelyn and India about Charlie make for some spectacularly awkward dinner conversation.
"Stoker" is the first screenplay from actor Wentworth Miller ("Prison Break"), and he's clearly a Hitchcock fan. Miller admits to being heavily influenced by "Shadow of a Doubt," and a number of other Hitchcockian homages are sprinkled throughout. Miller comes across as a capable writer, but I'll admit to expecting slightly more after hearing that the script made the 2010 "Black List," an annual industry report that highlights the best unproduced screenplays.
The film is first and foremost a technical marvel; it's always gorgeous to look at, often resembling a lushly photographed perfume ad, if perfume ads included periodic bursts of grisly violence (and I'd argue that more of them should). The film features some lovely, atmospheric production design by Rochester native Thérèse DePrez, and a moody, evocative score from Clint Mansell, featuring several piano duets composed by Philip Glass.
Enjoyment of "Stoker" will hinge largely on the viewer's patience for Chan-wook's fastidious, mannered style of directing. Every shot is impeccably framed and edited for maximum artistic style; there's a particularly striking transition as an extreme close-up of hair being brushed slowly fades into the tall grass of an open field. Often those kinds of flourishes can come off as overly self-conscious and distracting, but here, in the context of Chan-wook's gothic fairytale, it works. The film goes to some dark, nutty places, so a stomach for difficult scenes — like the one in which a character masturbates while thinking back fondly on a recently committed murder — is also helpful.
This is obviously not a movie for everyone, and judging from the constant, exasperated sighs I heard around me, several members of the audience I was in were just not having it. But if, like me, you've got a taste for the dark and twisted (more than once while watching, I thought of Lucky McKee's demented 2002 horror-fable, "May"), "Stoker" is absolutely thrilling.