Film Review: 'Stoker' is ambiguous, stylish, weird

"Stoker" is utterly fascinating -- about what we'd expect from the American debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose 2003 "Oldboy" was one of the most extraordinary films of the millennium so far. Even those who found the subject and gore of “Oldboy” objectionable had to give Park credit for its style. The same judgment applies to both “Lady Vengeance” and “Thirst,” his two subsequent films to be released in the U.S. At the same time, “Stoker” is utterly confounding and arguably ridiculous.

The name “Stoker” suggests a vampire film, which “Stoker” is not — I think. There are hints — but then there aren't. In fact, “Stoker” hints at many, many things that never actually become clear.

On the day India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) turns 18, her father (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a gruesome car crash. Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode) — her father's long-estranged brother, hence the uncle she's never heard about — turns up at the funeral reception. Amazingly, almost no one — including India's mom, Evie (Nicole Kidman) — knows about him, and the few that do seem alarmed by his presence. They also start to disappear. In no time, Charlie is coming on to sister-in-law Evie, who falls for it because, frankly, she's a dimwit.

Charlie radiates weirdness, which scares India and flies right over Evie's head. We quickly learn that there is some unspoken bond between India and her newfound uncle. Part of that is that India herself radiates weirdness; in school, she has long been mocked as the strange, antisocial smart girl. It's not just that she has no friends and has never dated, or that she won't let anyone so much as touch her; she seems incapable of simple eye contact. Even Evie, who is vaguely jealous of her daughter's extreme closeness to their recently departed husband/dad, knows her daughter is, well, odd.

Hitchcock fans will already be noticing how much the story sounds like “Shadow of a Doubt,” the 1943 thriller that the master himself counted among his best. At a minimum, it's a conscious homage, or a variation, or a pastiche. At a maximum, it's a loose, uncredited remake — a view that I'm leaning toward. There are also at least two visual references to “Psycho,” as well as to some other Hitchcock films.

“Shadow of a Doubt” was about a small-town girl (Teresa Wright) whose long-absent, mysterious Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) shows up; he has some sort of psychic bond with his niece. He also harbors evil right beneath his surface. There are subtle sexual/romantic undercurrents to their relationship (ewwww!). In “Stoker” the sexual implications are not subtle; they're not even undercurrents.

It's hard to take your eyes off “Stoker” simply because Park has, not surprisingly, cranked up the style. There are several montages that crosscut a scene with the scene that logically belongs immediately after, or maybe it's reality crosscut with India's fantasies, or alternate memories of how things happened, or visions of the future, or telepathic messages from Charlie, or (likeliest) free-associative links that don't have any internal justification beyond Park deciding to use them to hold our attention.

Movies can feature either good ambiguity or bad ambiguity. The former is intentional and implies a meaning or a pattern. The latter generally suggests bad storytelling skills. The ambiguity in “Stoker” is certainly intentional, but, in the end, it never comes together; it feels like gratuitous razzle-dazzle. To be fair, the style may simply be too complex for me to put together on a single viewing. And “Stoker” is intriguing enough that I look forward to seeing it again.


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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