Chan-wook Park is a wickedly assured visual storyteller. In fact, I'm not sure there's anybody better at doing what he does.
The South Korean director of Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance makes his English-language debut with Stoker, which revisits one of his favorite topics — revenge — and amply displays his talent for telling a story with pictures.
It's almost as if he doesn't need dialogue, what with his skillful use of transitions (there's a knockout shift from a close-up of Nicole Kidman's hair to a field of tall grass), a burnished color palette, off-kilter shots (like one of Mia Wasikowska whirling on an unseen merry-go-round) and visual details you don't even realize you noticed until they become important later.
Set in the present but Gothic in mood, Stoker is about a wealthy young woman (Wasikowska) whose mother (Kidman) introduces her for the first time to her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). It's a sly allusion to the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt, in which a young woman has her eyes opened to the cruelty of the world when her mom introduces her to a charming, corrupt uncle. The agenda is different in Stoker, but like Hitchcock, Park is interested in what happens when a young woman confronts evil in her own home.
Much of Stoker is about waiting for something to happen. Nobody in the movie has a job, unless you count wearing designer gowns and barking at servants, but there's a mounting sense of doom because Park charges every moment with electricity.
An odd piano duet in which it seems more like the partners are copulating than playing music, a conversation among three people that was shot to make it look as if they're in three rooms, ominous dialogue like Kidman's "She hates to be touched," unsettling musical choices — they all give Stoker a clammy, claustrophobic vibe that's part Tennessee Williams, part Jane Eyre, part somebody-having-a-breakdown-with-perfectly-coiffed-hair-on-daytime-TV.
Stylish and kinky, Stoker is probably too much of a hothouse flower to be a hit. Some of its heated dialogue flirts with ridiculousness (Uncle Charlie: "The ground is soft. Perfect for digging." What?). And you're going to fall for its creepy mood and beautifully crafted images or you're not.
I did, in a big way. And although I enjoyed the fevered craziness of the dialogue (Kidman to her daughter: "I can't wait to watch life tear you apart"), I kind of want to watch Stoker the next time with the sound off, the better to appreciate the elegance with which Park crafts its mesmerizing images.
R for bloody violence and partial nudity. Fox Searchlight. 1:38. Kentucky.