Hitchcock and bull
Some movies send you out of the theater vaguely dissatisfied, sensing that some vital ingredient was missing. Only later, upon sober reflection, do you realize that the picture was a ridiculous crock of hopeless hooey from the word go, with never a chance of being anything else. Such a movie is Stoker.
According to the official synopsis from Fox Searchlight Pictures: “India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) was not prepared to lose her father and best friend Richard (Dermot Mulroney) in a tragic auto accident. The solitude of her woodsy family estate, the peace of her tranquil town, and the unspoken somberness of her home life are suddenly upended by not only this mysterious accident, but by the sudden arrival of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never knew existed. When Charlie moves in with her and her emotionally unstable mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), India thinks the void left by her father’s death is finally being filled by his closest bloodline. Soon after his arrival, India comes to suspect that this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives. Yet instead of feeling outrage or horror, this friendless young woman becomes increasingly infatuated with him.”
I quote the studio publicity at length because judging from the movie itself, it is wrong in almost every detail.
Let’s take the last point first. Mia Wasikowska is a good actress: I think she could show us infatuation if she wanted to. Her India never appears infatuated with her Uncle Charlie. On the contrary, she’s suspicious of and hostile to him from the start.
As for the “mysterious, charming” Uncle Charlie, it seems to me that “creepy and charmless” would be closer to the mark. This may simply be my reaction to Matthew Goode, whom I have seldom found an actor of conspicuous charm. But we can’t hang this one on Goode: Most of Stoker’s problems are the work of director Chan-wook Park, who has never made a movie in English before, and the actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller, who has never written a screenplay at all.
When a supposed suspense thriller centers around a teenage girl and her Uncle Charlie, there might as well be a neon billboard flashing “Homage to Alfred Hitchcock” in the lobby. The model is Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which teen Teresa Wright suspects that her adored Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is a notorious serial killer.
The resemblance ends there. Hitchcock considered Shadow of a Doubt his one picture that would have no problem with “the plausibles”—those who found his plots far-fetched or unconvincing. To be sure, Shadow is all too plausible, but no such burden troubles Stoker. Wentworth Miller peppers his script with implausibilities, most of which can’t be detailed here without arousing the Spoiler Police. But some can. For example, the idea that for India’s birthday every year, somebody gives her a gift of the same pair of ugly saddle shoes, each a size larger than the year before, and each pair is left in a tree in a white box tied with a yellow ribbon. Compounding the implausibility, India has kept every single pair and lies with them around her in a circle when she’s feeling moody— which is most of the time.
Then there’s India’s treatment from a high-school jock, which would get him expelled for sexual harassment anywhere in America. Or her one sympathetic friend (Alden Ehrenreich of Beautiful Creatures), who turns into a rapist when it suits what we’ll laughingly call Stoker’s plot. Or her remaining in that daffy old house even after she finds the first body in the basement freezer. The crowning implausibility is Uncle Charlie’s “secret” when it’s finally revealed.
But why go on? Director Park imbues the movie with the visual folderol that sometimes passes for style, and was sufficiently brazen in his idiotic Oldboy (2003) to win him an award at Cannes Film Festival. Nobody bothered to tell Mr. Park that there was an even farther-fetched story here than he worked with in Oldboy.
Finally, there’s the question of Nicole Kidman, whose role amounts to little more than a diva cameo. Well, she worked with Wentworth Miller 10 years ago in The Human Stain. Maybe she was doing a favor for an old friend. Now he owes her one.