Stoker Review: Oldboy director Chan-wook Park’s US debut is just kind of dull

When I first heard the “Hey, Stoker! Or is it Stroker now?” line in the trailer for Stoker, I figured it was just another addition to the canon of assholishly self-amused bonehead movie bullies, a favorite stock character of mine (Cherita’s tormenters in Donnie Darko being a particular highlight). I didn’t realize it would turn out to be such a prophetic statement. Stoker really IS more like Stroker, an art-film 101 jerk-off session. It feels like symbolism in search of a story, provocativeness without a point, and if I hadn’t seen Oldboy, I’d think Chan-wook Park was some art school wannabe. Since I have seen Oldboy, let’s call it an off night. Or maybe directing a film written in a non-native tongue is just really hard. Yeah, probably the second one.

On the plus side, Park and writer Wentworth Miller (that bald dude from Prison Break, strangely enough) have made my mandatory paragraph of summary really easy: troubled India Stoker (played by Mia Wasikowska in ridiculous colored contact lenses) is your typical rich, broody, possibly-psychic pale chick straight out of every Tim Burton movie. When her dad dies, her creepy uncle Charles (Matthew Goode) moves in, presumably to put the moves on her slutty weird mom, Nicole Kidman. And that’s pretty much it for set up.

I call her uncle “creepy,” but actually, almost everything he does for the first two-thirds or so of the movie could be considered normal, or even polite, and it’s only the framing and music that make it creepy. It feels like Park didn’t really understand the subtext of the script he was shooting (or more accurately, the lack thereof). In fact, the first 30-40 minutes of the movie consists almost entirely of mundane action and dialog, made to feel foreboding through forced music, editing tricks, and stock “ominous movie” shots, like the one where the ingenue in her ethereal white dress opens her second-floor window to a gentle breeze and looks down at her antagonist, ominously waving and smiling up at her as he does something weird in the garden. The content doesn’t make it portentous, only the form does. You’re not quite sure why you’re watching it, other than that someone clearly thinks it’s important. (That someone? You guessed it, Frank Stallone).

Stoker leaves you waiting (and waiting), desperate for something interesting to happen. Finally it does, to the film’s credit, with a memorable shower scene that I won’t spoil for you here. Not surprisingly, the film’s best scene is one that’s wordless. The scene takes the story to a weird place, and it gets interesting for a while, but then fizzles out as it just sort of flails around trying to go to more weird places. It feels like a guy poking around trying to get the desired reaction from the audience, rather than a guy attempting to communicate his vision. Which is to say, there doesn’t seem to be much of a vision other than a desire for a reaction. “Whooooaaa, you crazy, Chan-wook Park, I never expected you to take me to this dark, edgy place!” Or something along those lines. You can feel him trying really hard to Shyamalan us, and he does, but it’s more Village Shyamalan than Sixth Sense Shyamalan. Trust me, no one wants that. For all the art school editing and camera tricks, the twists and revelations feel more Law and Order than Oldboy. The villain reveal is more “oh, come on” than “whoa, no way!”

Stoker has all the cheesy oddball hyperreality of a David Cronenberg movie without nearly enough of the lurid, original imagery to justify it. It’s like Breaking Bad if it was a show about Walt killing flies, and only tangentially concerned with the meth business. Stoker was occasionally entertaining and not a huge chore to sit through, but I was surprised when I left the theater and the total running time was only 98 minutes, because it felt like it was at least two and a half hours. Basically, I wish Chan-wook Park could direct my sexual encounters.


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