A perverse fairy tale ripe with mordant, sexy menace, the campy, playful Stoker is the kind of cinematic whirlwind that typically slips through the public's fingers. Like such baroque wonders as Donald Cammell's White of the Eye or Paul Verhoeven's The Fourth Man, it's almost too kinky for a mass audience. Almost.
South Korean director Park Chan-wook, here making his English-language debut, suffuses the film with the dark symbolism and gnarled family roots of classic Southern gothic. Yet Stoker is equally versed in the remorseless plot labyrinths of the so-called Vengeance trilogy that made Park's name. A love letter to Alfred Hitchcock, Flannery O'Connor and Charles Laughton, it's also further demonstration of the director's own aesthetic, one that keeps the touchstones of his best previous work (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, J.S.A., the "Cut" segment of Three Extremes).
The Stoker clan has its little intrigues, as all families do. But as young India (Mia Wasikowska) and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), deal with the tragic death of father and husband Richard (Dermot Mulroney, seen in portentous flashback) — and, perhaps worse, the sudden reappearance of his long-lost brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode) — it's evident that something has been amiss for a long time in this house. What follows is a smooth, rat-poison cocktail of sex, violence, interfamily warfare and murder, with a lulu of a sandbox set piece that plays like Mr. Rogers' take on Titus Andronicus.
Park's Korean films had begun to move from cool detachment toward flamboyantly stylized melodrama. In Stoker, the butterfly emerges from its wardrobe. Using Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt as his template, making explicit what the master barely hinted at — the sexual attraction flickering in the sick Teresa Wright-Joseph Cotten relationship — Park aims for something closer to the hothouse eroticism and stylistic gamesmanship of late-period De Palma. As Charlie seduces Evelyn while playing cat-and-mouse with India, every deliriously hyper-symbolic image is charged with multiple meanings; each frame fits into the jigsaw mania of Park's elaborately splintered design.
And yet the performances are as heightened as avant-garde theater, even as Park plays with tried-and-true thriller iconography and archetypes. Goode gives a fascinating performance, not because his Charlie comes off completely psychotic but because he finds an emotional arc within that psychosis. Wasikowska brings her A game, incarnating a walking bruise with the power of Dolores Claiborne–era Jennifer Jason Leigh. The actress has a gift for keeping her cards close, and her India is a dark-minded, untrusting pragmatist who sees through everything around her, deep into the shadows.
Kidman isn't the star of this particular narrative, but she brings so much nasty relish to the proceedings that it's impossible to imagine the movie without her. As in The Paperboy, she again suggests a libido beating like a raptor against its cage. Here she finds a brittle, jittery variation on Tennessee Williams erotomania. This was a project she nurtured and kept close to her Middle Tennessee home — the part of John Cheever country is played by Nashville — and when she hisses venom at her sullen daughter or slinks around like Betty Draper haunting a house, you can see why she wanted the movie, and why Park wanted it, too. Stoker may be the sickest, most twisted film about working through family issues we'll get this year. And the most fun.