As the opening credits of “Stoker” flow and falter, blow in with the breeze and materialize out of the smoke of extinguished birthday cake candles, it's clear that South Korean director Park Chan-wook's distinctive style isn't going to be lost in translation with his first English-language film.
To say the psychosexual thriller is more about style than story is in no way an insult: Park and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung adroitly use extreme camera angles, distorted focuses and an ever-shifting color palette to develop the film's substantial, slow-burning suspense.
He and his crew have an exquisite command of the movie's sound, too. In concert with the masterful score, the amplified cracking of an eggshell, the foreboding rasp of a pencil being sharpened and the heightened beat of a metronome lend an eerily atmospheric mood to actor Wentworth Miller's (the TV show “Prison Break”) conventionally Hitchcockian script.
Known for his shockingly violent cult favorites “The Vengeance Trilogy” — “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” — Park even cannily uses the audience's expectations of his movies to build an almost intolerable sense of dread. It's no mystery that something rotten is happening inside the Stoker family's Southern gothic mansion, and film fans familiar with Park's repertoire will be braced for the worst until the end credits roll.
The cinematic mind-job also serves as another stellar showcase for Australian actress Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”) and Brit Matthew Goode (“Watchmen”), who have a creepily effective chemistry.
Wasikowska stars as introverted high schooler India Stoker, whose beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a horrible accident on her 18th birthday. At the funeral, she is shocked when her Uncle Charlie (Goode), her father's younger brother, turns up. After all, India didn't even know she had an uncle.
Over the protests of India's fretful great-aunt, Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), Charlie moves in with the teenager and her cold, brittle mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The ingratiating Charlie fixes gourmet meals, works in the garden and develops an inappropriately cozy relationship with the youth-obsessed widow. But he also has watchful eyes for India, who is both distrustful of and drawn to her handsome long-lost uncle.
Although he gets a bit heavy-handed with his use of symbolic omens like scuttling spiders and stuffed birds, Director Park (as the cast and crew respectfully dubbed him) makes an unsettling and auspicious Hollywood debut with “Stoker.”
— Brandy McDonnell