By Shane M. Dallmann
Here it is… the English-language debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook. I certainly didn’t recognize it as such via the trailer… in fact, I took for granted that I was seeing a preview of an acknowledged remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT (sinister Uncle Charlie comes to visit, etc.). Well, I was almost right, but STOKER doesn’t stop there.
Yes, indeed, father Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney in flashbacks) is killed in a mysterious auto accident, leaving his well-to-do family in mourning. Central to the clan are eighteen-year-old daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) and her mother Evelyn (an equally intense Nicole Kidman). And sure enough, Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up pretty much out of nowhere to insinuate himself into the living arrangement. And we quickly suspect he’s up to no good.
SHADOW OF A DOUBT, right? Well, don’t stop there… India is shown to have an obsessive interest in taxidermy, and when she goes down to the cellar to check out the deep freezer, she deliberately pushes an overhead light with her hand to make it swing back and forth. Then she does it again. And by the THIRD time she does it, I found myself saying “Mr. Park, if your audience hasn’t figured out by now that you’re ‘doing Hitchcock,’ they’re NEVER going to get it.” And then a moment of sexual tension cuts to a shot of a moving train and then takes us to a neon sign in the shape of a rocket. At which point I asked “Are you sending Hitchcock UP? And if so, WHY?” As far as I can tell, there is NO humor in this movie (and that’s a big mistake if you’re aspiring to the Master himself, as I see it).
Well, there IS the family name (which apparently has nothing to do with the author of DRACULA). The name “Richard Stoker” lends itself to a dirty high-school joke… and sure enough, India’s school bullies start calling her “Stroker.” So much for humor: this, of course, provides a boiling point for India’s simmering rage… and just how is Uncle Charlie going to enhance her emotions?
Hey, I had a much better idea than the one screenwriter Wentworth Miller served up, but then they’d say I was ripping off David Fincher instead of Alfred Hitchcock.
Okay. Park creates plenty of beautiful, haunting images (not to mention plenty of shoe porn/foot fetish material this time out, if that’s of interest to you) and sets up some individually terrific scenes (a piano duet between Charlie and India happens to be my favorite). He can still crack bones with the best directors of violence and he gets fine performances out of his players. But none of this, in the end, makes STOKER a story particularly worth TELLING. Ultimately, it’s nothing more than yet another series of sad, ugly flashbacks and revelations that come as no surprise (and with no catharsis). Park Chan-wook is one damn fine Park Chan-wook. And while experimentation is always commendable, I hope he’s satisfied that he doesn’t need to try to be the next Alfred Hitchcock.