There is one particular visual metaphor in Stoker, South Korean director Park Chan-wook's opulently gruesome English-language debut, that indicates its intentions so bawdily that the audience, or my audience at least, is forced to laugh. Our young heroine India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), awash in dangerous feelings for her clearly dangerous and heretofore unknown uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), lies on her bed while a spider, whom we've seen in a scene or two before, crawls up her stockinged thigh and disappears between her legs as it wanders under her skirt. Something bad is invading India's loins, you see, something elemental but crooked; a strange predator has found its most delicate prey. It's moments like these, artistic flourishes as striking for their audacious silliness as they are for their visual beauty, that make the film a tinglingly ugly art-house joke. For all the dreamily ominous imagery and portentous Philip Glass piano music, Stoker is really just a grubby little titillation, a B-movie absurdity dressed up in fancy clothes.
Park, best known for his brutal but artful revenge triptych The Vengeance Trilogy, is working from a script by Wentworth Miller (with contributions from Erin Cressida Wilson), the brooding but soft-faced actor best known for the series Prison Break. Miller is lucky that a director of Park's abilities was interested in the script — which deals with themes of revenge similar to his earlier work — because in lesser or baser hands, there would be little redeeming about the film. What Miller has written is somehow both pretentious and meaningless, a deceptively cliche-heavy f-cked up family horror-drama about an operatically unpleasant sexual awakening. The story chiefly concerns India, a maddeningly mute high school senior whose father (Dermot Mulroney) has just died in a mysterious car accident. (Why was he two states away at the time, and on his beloved India's 18th birthday no less?) Her mother, an icy harridan named Evelyn (Nicole Kidman, doing her Nicole Kidman thing), offers little comfort, not that India would want it anyway; they have a relationship that could, at best, be called standoffish. So India is left to mourn and sulk in her own moony little world, that is until slinky and seductive Uncle Charlie zooms up in a green vintage Jaguar and starts ruffling feathers.
India didn't know she had an uncle, and is initially wary of this insinuating stranger. She's right to be. He clearly scares her blithering great aunt Gwen (Jacki Weaver) and the doting housekeeper Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville), while her mother is all hot to trot about this sexy and mysterious new man in their lives. Suffice it to say, the mood gets progressively weirder and darker, people start disappearing, and India uncovers some scary, long-buried family secrets. Throughout all this, Park has been simultaneously gracing and assaulting us with his relentless tableaux. India stands at the top of a playground slide with a glowing globe moon hovering above her. Evelyn lounges languidly on a settee in her bedroom surrounded by plants, a literal hothouse. Charlie leans against his cool car, shades on, waiting for India to get out of school. It's all very lovely and sinister, until we start to piece together what's actually going on and the heavy brushstrokes begin to seem like an awful lot of ornamentation to hang off of a pretty pedestrian story. Stoker ultimately amounts to an elegant, feminine version of Dexter, all of that show's cheap thrills gussied up with elaborate camerawork and heavily mannered performances.
Though Park has assembled a fine cast of talented folks, the acting in the film is all over the place. Kidman preens and pouts and trembles with whispery want and gimlet-eyed anger, as she's done in so many things before this; she's maybe the closest thing the film has to comic relief. Goode, an appealing actor who should work more, is perfectly suave but scary in his various scenes of seduction, but when he's forced to project anything more than that, specifically a certain daffy but clinical madness, things verge into parody. And Wasikowska, such a reedy but confident performer in fare as diverse as Jane Eyre and The Kids Are All Right, is here made to mostly stand and stare, eyes dead with what I guess is supposed to be American teen angst. Her character is entirely grating; she's an antiheroine who is way too much anti. Not that India has to be likable, some sympathetic soul we follow through all this muck, but her laconic stupor is supposed to communicate hidden depths when it mostly just frustrates. Halfway through the movie, I wanted to yell at the screen and tell her to say something, dammit. This kind of aloof, "I don't answer when spoken to" stuff that certain indies have been trafficking in of late has reached the point of diminishing returns, I'm afraid. No, I'm not afraid. I'm glad. Characters should speak when spoken to more often than not.
But really the acting is not what's chiefly wrong with Stoker. The true problem is that it's a film that throws a lot of heavy topics at us — lust, incest, murder, psychopathy, inherited family sins — for the sheer sake of throwing them. By Stoker's end, the movie hasn't developed or advanced any ideas, it hasn't lured us into any place of feeling, it hasn't even scared us. Plodding and sometimes Malickianly slow, the film takes its sweet time only to hastily rush into a meaningless, grandly violent finale. Park makes arresting pictures — at times teeming with life, at others alluringly stark — but he's hobbled by a script that renders them weightless. Nasty and nihilistic, Stoker tells the story of a family gone bad that was already bad to begin with. It's a straight line into the abyss without any real surprise or variation. And it's pretty hard to get stoked about that.