Puberty is sex and sex is murder in Stoker, a Hitchcockian stew of hothouse familial jealousy, sadism and psychosis all tied together by one teenage girl's homicidal coming of age. Psychosexual imagery permeates every inch of renowned South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's stateside debut. A blood-tipped pencil, or water dripping between a young girl's shoes: These sights resound with over-the-top connotations suggesting danger in her carnal awakening. They coalesce into a portrait of femininity as a lethal and alluring force — and something, as Park seems to see it, to be celebrated as a source of power.
The roots of that flowering are found in a cracked love triangle. Its corners: recently widowed Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman), her deceased husband's out-of-nowhere brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), and her daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska), a gaunt girl whose loner attitude and quirky habits — she seems to collect birthday presents each year in a tree — allow Wasikowska to operate in a more overtly Tim Burton-style register than she could in Burton's own Alice in Wonderland.
India is on the precipice of womanhood, and the arrival of Charlie — first spied from a distance at her father's funeral, seemingly calling out to her — is the catalyst for her transformation. He's dashing, but his unblinking eyes hint at an underlying craziness; he appears, from the outset, inappropriately interested in both Evelyn and India. For Park, Charlie is himself something of a MacGuffin, functioning as a potential threat to Evelyn and India, but in fact proving to be merely a vehicle for India to mutate into something more mighty and terrifying than either of her adult relatives.
All this feels something like surreal fable. None of the adults seem to have a profession, and the people in this world — as Charlie has it — "disappear all the time" without anyone noticing or caring. That includes India's devoted father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), whose death has been casually deemed some sort of undisclosed "accident."
Operating in a dreamy vein that's far less gruesome than his renowned "vengeance trilogy" (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), Park makes no gestures toward reality. Instead he immerses his material in a borderline-hallucinatory atmosphere of barely contained madness conjured in part by his gliding pans and sudden zoom-outs. The script, from actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller, is geared less to plausibility than it is to allusions and moods, and the proceedings often feel ready to dive headfirst into camp.
Alas, they don't. Park's formalist touch is too cool to ignite the envy and lust eager to burst forth from each stiff conversation and mechanical gesture. Keeping on-screen violence to a relative minimum, Park's methodical but tonally uneven direction too often eschews luridness; it's as if he can't decide exactly how far to push his material into the loopy. Still, his assured and evocative camerawork intimates that peril lurks everywhere, and there's an alien quality to its performances and dialogue that suggests a world slightly unhinged.
During two dinner scenes, Park's camera swings about the trio's heads to reflect their shifting emotional dynamics, the direction slick and assured but also distracting, reminding us of the drama's overarching artificiality. That would be more tolerable if there were real stakes at play in Stoker. However, India seems throughout impossibly poised and invulnerable, as when she stands up to bullies with that pencil, or when she and Charlie join forces to dispatch one of her rape-minded school acquaintances. She never seems in danger of falling prey to anyone, including the icily charming Charlie. As such, the film often feels like a gorgeously rendered put-on, an exercise in play-acting various familiar scenarios.
For all that, the film is beautifully acted. Goode is saddled with the most obviously whacked character, yet he wields his pretty-boy features and prim-and-proper accent to chilling effect, at least until revelations about his true nature drag Charlie into even more silly territory. Given the least screen time of the three leads, Kidman is nonetheless magnetic as Evelyn, radiating desperate desire for male attention and burning resentment and frustration toward India. In an early scene, explaining to funeral guests why India shudders at her touch, Kidman's Evelyn masterfully vacillates between anger, embarrassment and hurt.
But it's Wasikowska who bestows Stoker with its peculiar vitality, creepily embodying India's maturation as a dangerous devolution into darker hungers. Evelyn may caustically tell her daughter "I can't wait to watch life tear you apart," but for Park's lunatic film — in which India casts aside male and female role models in order to find liberation in chaotic carnage — there's nothing more empowering or fearsome than blossoming female sexuality.