Stoker goes for it, for every given value of "it" you can come up with. And this is absolutely the saving grace of a movie that is all over the place, totally unconcerned with whether it's making good or bad decisions, and generally flaunting its own grotesqueness in a way that works only because that grotesqueness is so freely presented, with good energy and high spirits.
It is, in short, every inch a Park Chan-wook movie, the South Korean thriller expert making a very splashy Engligh-language debut and keeping his personality very much intact. And that's more a good thing than bad, though certainly, not one of Park's movies has been completely free of problems, and Stoker is at any rate more broken, in more ways, than the director's previous work best-known in the English speaking world: the "Vengeance" trilogy, and 2009's vampire horror-melodrama Thirst. One might hope, with a name like Stoker, that his new film would tap into a little bit of that bloodsucking energy, but in fact it's a largely overt riff on Hitchcock's killer-in-the-family thriller Shadow of a Doubt, right down to the antagonist named Uncle Charlie, one of many points where the script overreaches something fierce. I cannot say whether the version of Wentworth Miller's screenplay that made the prestigious Black List was identical to the one that reached the screen, but I have to say, it's pretty damn obvious about a whole lot of things that might be better left mysterious. Suffice it to say that the story of 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), and her strange relationship with long-lost Charlie (Matthew Goode), is not one that will keep you guessing, if you've ever read a story or seen a movie that falls even broadly in the category of a thriller. The details are in some way surprising, but not, by any stretch of the imagination the broad strokes.
It's hard to say if it's actually a problem that the film is so predictable; certainly, Park doesn't appear to care about the story one way or the other, for all the attention he lavishes on it. This is very unmistakably an exercise in overwhelming style for him - as pretty much all of his movies have been, but increasingly so as his career has developed - and if anything, having a pretty good idea about what Charlie's Dark Secret is helps in building an omnipresent atmosphere of suffocating dread; since we're not busy wondering what and if, Park can devote all of his energy to making the whole thing as roiling and oppressive as possible, and that certainly ends up with a whole lot of scenes that, on their own merits, are absolutely flawless horror filmmaking. There are moments of sublime, inescapable creepiness here, made by a filmmaker whose ability to effortlessly jerk the audience around hasn't been in doubt for years, and which linger with grim, toxic potency: a sexually-laden piano duet that is as terrifying as anything could be in its ramped-up sound design and strangling editing and the excellent, go-for-broke acting involved springs to mind, but it's not a film light on moments that, divorced of context, are as strong as any genre film could want.
"Divorced of context", I say, but then Stoker doesn't do all that much work to build a context in the first place. Simply put, in among all the gestures of unimpeachable craftsmanship and brutal manipulation of the viewer, it's a deeply empty movie, in which that craftsmanship and manipulation is an end unto itself. This would bother me considerably more if it weren't so good; if we didn't live in an age where horror thrillers that actually horrified and thrilled are as rare as hen's teeth. Simply for feeling acutely dangerous, Stoker earns a passing grade from me. But that's the hell of it, there is nothing else at all. For all that the script piles on details about India's dead father (Dermot Mulroney, in flashbacks) and icy, clearly unloving mother (Nicole Kidman, wasted until the final act), India herself is simply not that interesting or easy to care about, one way or the other; we neither root for her as a detective hunting around Uncle Charlie's past, nor fear for her as a potential victim of his depredations. On the page, she might have felt like a figure with agency and personality - given the sexual element that enters the film early and never lets up, it's almost certain she had more of a personality in the script - but Park stages the film and blocks his actors with such calculated detachment that it's just damn hard to actually think of her as a person; and Wasikowska, though exceptionally intelligent about the mechanics of what she's doing, is certainly not pushing through anything to warm the movie up in that regard. The characters are obviously vessels for affect: why else introduce India's super-human sense of hearing, which is used as a bland plot element a few times and never seems to inform Wasikowska's performance, but goddamn, does it ever put in a robust appearance in the film's rich, overwhelming sound design.
And that's the thing: Stoker might be largely a pretext for style, but the style works. Not as well as in any of the director's earlier films, certainly; its violent gestures are neither as visually poetic nor as morally unsettling as anything that shows up in a Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, or certainly an Oldboy, and those films had involving characters in addition to being exercises in visceral style as justification for itself. Still, if the goal of filmmaking is to create a particular emotional state, and the goal of horror in particular is to leave the viewer feeling off-kilter and violated, by God, Stoker does that. Mostly it does this through sound (the heightened, disorienting mix that pumps up silences), and music (Clint Mansell's score is maybe my favorite thing he's ever done, discordant and eerie without relying on traditional genre tropes); to a certain degree it does this with the stuffy production design and super-saturated visuals; only barely does it to this through the human beings affected by those elements of craft. This is compelling, and not totally without merit; it does leave Stoker as a movie that simply will not work for all or even most people, and even as a form and genre junkie, I have to admit that I admire it without having been particularly excited about the experience of watching it. Still, it's hard to deny that it's defiantly unlike anything else produced in the relative mainstream, and that counts.