3 out of 4 stars
With movies -- far more so than any other form of expressionist media -- there's a fine line between lurid and art. If you're thoughtful and do it with style, you're the latter. If you're in it solely for the titillation factor, it will eventually become obvious and you will fall decidedly into the first camp and probably make something dull, uninteresting and likely offensive. "Stoker" is minimalist high-concept art but more than a few viewers will likely find it a supreme turn-off.
It should be pointed out that "Stoker" is not a bio-flick about the guy who wrote "Dracula" but does bring with it all of uncomfortable airs a movie like that might suggest. It's the last name of the family in the film and could be perceived by some as an adjective (stoke) to describe one or more of the characters.
The first English language feature from Korean director Park Chan-wook, "Stoker" will appeal to dedicated fans of both Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick or anyone fond of creepy-crawly cinema. Each of those esteemed and renowned filmmakers have their own distinct audiences, but also share a great deal of shared artistic common ground and creative overlap.
From the onset, Park is in a chilled and detached mode and -- perhaps realizing the script from co-producer/screenwriter Wentworth Miller (the lead actor in the TV series "Prison Break") wasn't nearly as deep as anything ever made by Mr. H or Mr. K -- goes heavy with the visuals.
The opening title sequence has the credits becoming part of the story. Names are strategically placed in specific parts of the screen and are brought in and fade out as it suits the frame. This isn't a bad thing, per se; it shows immense forethought and awareness of the medium, but could also be interpreted as a distraction for weak content.
It opens with the funeral of Richard (Dermot Mulroney -- shown in economic flashback) -- the husband of Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and father of India (Mia Wasikowska). It takes the duration of the film before we're privy to how exactly Richard died and to the filmmakers' credit -- they take as long as possible for that particular reveal.
Attending the funeral from a far distance is Richard's brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), an impeccably appointed and calculating guy who immediately drives a wedge between Evelyn and India. With a frozen, game-show smile and glassy, into-the-distant stare, the attentive Charlie knows exactly which buttons to push and when -- whether they are positive or negative and Evelyn and India get plenty of both.
On the surface Evelyn is putting her best face forward as the bereaved widow but we somehow get the feeling she's not all that broken up. It is inferred throughout that was jealous of India's close relationship with her father and is beyond frustrated her daughter can't get with the program and lighten up.
Suggesting what might have happened to Wednesday Addams had she made it to young adulthood, India is a raven-haired, snow-pale skinned loner type who is into obscure literature and doing anything to get under Evelyn's skin. It's a perfect next step for the underrated Wasikowska who infused many of these same qualities into the title leads she played in "Alice in Wonderland" and the most recent incarnation of "Jane Eyre."
Generally regulated to nice-guy vanilla supporting roles, Goode is the kind of guy both Hitchcock and Kubrick regularly cast. Tall, dark, handsome and clean-cut, he is surface safe and genteel but just below the surface lurks disquieting malfeasance and Goode is careful not to let Charlie get emotional or do anything that is overtly self-serving. A brilliantly executed montage scene in the third act fills us in on Charlie's lascivious past and it is horrifically jarring.
Even though the filmmakers leave no loose ends regarding the plot or the fate of any of the characters, some could perceive the ending to be vague and less than poetic. In actuality, it is very clear and probably closer to the real world than any of us would expect or like. (Fox Searchlight)