Film Review: Stoker

South Korean shock artist Park Chan-wook's English-language debut, a dreamy, claustrophobic thriller about family secrets and lies, alternates between genuine creepiness and a disconcerting goofiness that undermines its atmospheric chills.

Eighteen-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a defiant puzzle who watches the world with the cool eyes of sleepy reptile, fundamentally uninterested in engaging with the world beyond her family's isolated, palatial suburban home—a world that's shattered when her beloved father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), is killed in a single-car accident.

India's cool, beautiful mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who flits around her own home like a bird of paradise in a gilded cage, has never known what to do with a daughter who's completely uninterested in clothes—except the little-girl dresses and saddle shoes she's worn since she was a child—or parties or boys. India always preferred bird-hunting with her father—her carefully stuffed trophies litter the house—and reading peculiar books, but the heart of Evelyn's melodramatic sorrow is that India doesn't love her…though it's hard not to wonder whether the real issue is that Evelyn can't reconcile the notion of how a mother should behave with the fact that she doesn't love India.

Into this domestic hothouse comes Richard's brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), a cheerful, outgoing stranger who's spent most of his life abroad. India, who never even knew her father had a brother, isn't particularly receptive to Uncle Charlie's (shout-out to Alfred Hitchcock's sublimely disturbing Shadow of a Doubt duly noted) friendly overtures, though Evelyn is drawn to him with the desperation of a sun-starved flower. It's clear no good can come of this, but to say more would spoil the plot's twists, predictable though most of them may be.

Stoker is gorgeously designed and photographed, and the combination of metaphorical gothic gloom and sun-dappled beauty is handsomely executed if, like the story, a bit obvious. Korean director Park Chan-wook takes full advantage of his cast, which is uniformly excellent, from the stars to supporting players, notably Jacki Weaver as Richard and Charlie's sister, who drops in for a brief but thrillingly fraught visit; Phyllis Somerville as the Stokers’ kindly but sharp-eyed housekeeper, and Alden Ehrenreich as a classmate who reaches out to India with less than optimal results.

The trouble is that with one exception, involving a cache of letters, Stoker 's payoffs don't quite live up to the insidious implications tucked beneath its picture-perfect façade. They're grim enough, but lack the operatic cruelty that drives Park's best films, like Thirst (2009), Oldboy (2003), Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and the underappreciated JSA: Joint Security Area (2000), in which random unfortunates take a wrong turn and wind up wriggling on the hook of indifferent fate. Baroque though their misfortunes may be, the Stokers bring them on themselves and at a certain point it becomes hard to care.