Among the more difficult tricks in any artform is to create something new-but-familiar. Such is the world presented in 'Stoker,' Park Chan-Wook's ('Oldboy,' 'Lady Vengeance') first English language film. You can hum along as if you've heard the tune before, but examining any specific moment reveals that, beneath the ice, there's a river of peculiarity far more unique than may first seem obvious.
When we meet the members of the Stoker family in their vaguely Charles Adams abode you'll be unable to tell what decade it is, or if this is even in the “real world.” Indeed, one way to describe 'Stoker' is "'Beetlejuice' without the jokes." Mia Wasikowska, with her long, simple hair and makeup-free visage clomps around the house in saddle shoes reading books about Victorian mourning rituals.
Her father, with whom she was very close, has just died in a mysterious car accident, and her mother, Nicole Kidman using her wax statuette features to their best purpose, doesn't seem to be too upset about it. When the uncle Wasikowska never heard of (Matthew Goode) shows up in his sleek convertible and high thread count sports jackets, we know that her innocence is about to be shattered, we just don't know how.
The film's title, mood and presentation of Wasikowska as “odd” has all the earmarks that something supernatural is afoot, but adolescence is transformative enough without magic. While the film's third act does reveal the skeletons in her family's closet (or corpses beneath the modern art sculptures,) 'Stoker' makes the case that evil, or chaos, doesn't necessarily have to be the work of the devil, it could just be in the blood.
But here's what Park Chan-Wook does offer up: proof that your movie can be unnervingly perverse even if all the characters (mostly) keep their clothes on and the violence is (by and large) offscreen or bloodless. By dressing up mother and daughter in innumerable outfits - from head-to-toe dresses befitting Laura Ingalls Wilder to wispy nightgowns made of silk - and having all this tension - makes 'Stoker' the most dazzling work of fetishism likely to hit a theater this year. Spiders crawl on Wasikowsa's black tights and Kidman bounces around in summer whites asking “anyone for tennis?” in a near parody of repressed sexual fetish fantasies. While little of it is explicit, 'Stoker' is an absolute love letter to the thought-crimes of a filthy old man.
Prurience aside, 'Stoker's' photography and production design are sublime, each frame worthy of a high-res screenshot for the noblest of cineaste Tumblrs. There's also a great alacrity in the editing, as flash cuts occasionally jump through time or into characters' points of view. There is no consistency to the method, making it all the more striking. There are also some trick shots, like a closeup of brushed hair dissolving into meadows of wind-blown tall grass that, if they weren't done right, could have inspired laughter.
The result is a masterpiece of tone that, for better or worse, needs to conform to some sort of story unless it wants to remain a total art piece. The fundamental “whodunnit” aspects are the weakest part of the film, though some additional final twists are, if nothing else, surprising. What works is the post-screening thought process. Without spoiling too much, you may realize that you've just spent close to two hours cheering on the development of an unrepentant sociopath. This is certainly not a moral victory, but Park Chan-Wook makes it look so good it's just irresistible.
'Stoker' opens in select theaters on March 1.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.