You put a little Lolita in. You take a little Humbert out. You put a little Norman Bates in and you strangle it all out. You do the incesty hanky panky and you turn some oversized stones about. And that’s what Stoker‘s all about!
Forgive my poor nursery rhyming, but I found Stoker to be an amateur, but nicely grim concoction, pasted together with some remnants of already well-known tales of North American woe. Just in exchange for happily ever afters, Prince Charmings and fairy godmothers, director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst) serves up dead ends, pervy uncles and godawful CGI spiders!
Stoker follows a teenage girl (Alice in Wonderland‘s Mia Wasikowska) with a ridiculously made-up name (India Stoker) as she comes to terms with her father’s sudden death, which, suspiciously, coincides with her mother’s (Nicole Kidman) slutty, Evil Queen-y change in mood, as well as the entrance of Charlie, an obscenely good-looking, but previously unknown family member (Matthew Goode). The moment he meets her, Uncle Charlie appears to see past India’s detached, Wednesday Adams meets May exterior, stirring highly inappropriate, highly unwieldy emotions within various parts of her. But he also appears to harbour some underlying feeling for her mother, not to mention the especially sharp-looking backyard shovel.
Based on the base plot alone, Stoker sounds like a strange stroke of genius, a forgotten gothic novel come to disturbingly beautiful life. And it is, for the first 45 minutes or so, as Goode and Wasikoska develop a dangerously close relationship that you could imagine Vladmir Nabakov would have dreamed up, and one dark, artistically shot scene finds a way to fuse The Birds with Psycho. But the script gets clunkier than India’s prized saddle shoes (get ready for some kick-you-in-the-face footwear symbolism!) and some of the actors go mediocre maniacal after a while, turning what could have been classic into a pretentious campfest. By the end credits, don’t be surprised if you’re wondering if you’re watching a Harlequin romance gone wrong and co-directed, half-heartedly, by Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. (Ugh. That sounded way more glorious than I intended!)
The thing that stops it going completely over the top is the purposefully muted backdrop, which evokes tones captured only on the weathered pages of much used (and abused) storybooks. The main setting — the Stokers’ gloriously oversized and modernized Victorian house — could be an Instagramed, otherworldly wing of the creepy place Kidman called home in The Others. It, the gorgeous costuming (look out for a stellar blue and black lace number Kidman wears in the finale), Goode’s too-perfect face, and Kidman’s wonderfully wild-eyed performance make for damn fine distractions from the film’s glaringly off points. Like the fact that the screenplay was — I’m not joking — penned by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller. And that Beautiful Creatures star Alden Ehrenreich is expected to come off as anything less than wholly charming. (If you’ve seen Beautiful Creatures, which has him speaking in a charm-your-face-off Southern accent, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) And that Harmony Korine, the writer of Kids and director of Spring Breakers, plays an art teacher for all of five seconds. (What an waste!) And that, after some way-obvious clues, the ending comes as less than a surprise.
Although I can’t say I was nearly as stoked on Stoker as I wanted to be, I was undeniably drawn to it, just as I was to its closest ancestors, Lolita and Psycho, and as India is to Charlie. But that book and film stood tall at the middle ground between the despicable and the beautiful. Stoker, on the other hand, seems like a timid, not-quite-grown-up girl, afraid to go too deep into the flamboyantly fucked up forest, but too far gone to commit to going home.