Starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman. Written by Wentworth Miller. Directed by Park Chan-wook. 14A. 98 min. Opens March 1.
An elegantly perverse thriller that marks the English-language debut by Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, Stoker aims to be the kind of fanboy-pleaser that’s the sum of its literary and cinematic allusions. The gloomy country-house setting is one of many gothic elements that viewers may associate with Bram Stoker, the film’s Dracula author namesake, or Edgar Allan Poe. Yet as the body count mounts, Park’s eagerness to pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock becomes increasingly blatant—hell, Stoker even boasts a mysterious and murderous uncle named Charlie, just like the gentleman strangler played by Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt.
Matthew Goode stars as this Charlie, a smoothie who arrives at the aforementioned house to comfort the bereaved wife and daughter of his recently deceased brother, Richard (Dermot Mulroney). Though the widow, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), is quick to accept his attentions, the teenaged India (Mia Wasikowska) is warier of the newcomer. As well she should be, given the way her uncle continually shifts between the roles of replacement father figure and potential lover. Whichever guise he takes, Charlie seems keen to foster India’s more diabolical tendencies as she edges closer to womanhood.
All this makes for a situation so flagrantly Freudian, even Hitch might’ve found it a little overripe. Working from a script by former Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, Park strives to keep this stew of psychosexual tensions at a boil with bravura sequences like a feverish piano duet that brings India and Charlie into very close contact. Yet Stoker is ultimately too arch and too contrived to achieve the promised degree of freakitude. As fun as it can be to play this game of spot-the-reference, the movie’s too besotted with its own cleverness and stylistic flourishes to generate a genuine sense of risk or menace.