The first round of reviews reveals a pretty severe split, and we’ll begin with Guy Lodge in Variety: “When South Korean genre iconoclast Park Chan-wook decided to bring his peculiar gifts to a Stateside production, anything could have happened—and anything pretty much does in Stoker, a splendidly demented gumbo of Hitchcock thriller, American Gothic fairy tale and a contemporary kink all Park’s own…. Earmarking future cult items is a fool’s errand, but Park’s film nonetheless stands to be treasured not just by his existing band of devotees, who should recognize enough of the Oldboy and Thirst director’s loopy eroticism and singular mise-en-scene amid the studio gloss, but by epicurean horror buffs, camp aficionados and even a small, hip sect of post-Twilight youths.”
And from the opposing corner comes Time Out London‘s Tom Huddleston: “From John Woo (Hard Target) to Wong Kar-Wai (My Blueberry Nights) to Kim Jee-Woon (2013’s The Last Stand), it seems every Asian filmmaker (bar Ang Lee) falls flat on their face when they head for Hollywood. But few have fallen quite so far as Oldboy and Lady Vengeance director Park Chan-Wook, whose English language debut is a pretty but directionless mishmash of gothic fairytale and coming-of-age clichés sporting some truly cringeworthy performances.” And for Huddleston, it all adds up to “a drab, mannered melodrama trapped uncomfortably between horror and family saga, potentially interesting in execution but relentlessly tedious in outcome.”
No, it’s “a gorgeously mounted family mystery dressed up as a gothic fairytale,” argues Jeremy Kay in the Guardian. What’s more, he’s quite taken with the performances. “Mia Wasikowska plays the lead role of India, a curious, seemingly unknowable young woman whose world is turned upside down after the mysterious death of her father Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney). India and Richard were very close and his demise hits her hard. Then, from out of the blue, comes eccentric Uncle Charlie. He pops up at Richard’s funeral and plants himself atop a nearby tomb, from where he stares down at the proceedings with an outsider’s gaze. Charlie is played by Matthew Goode with seductive power (the part was originally intended for Colin Firth). He inveigles himself into the household and before long is charming the pants off India’s mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Kidman delivers another performance of potent sultriness after her much-publicized turn in Lee Daniels’ Cannes curio The Paperboy.”
For the Playlist‘s Rodrigo Perez, all of Park’s “worst tendencies for the histrionic and overly operatic are on utterly garish display in the overwrought and tonally poisoned Stoker. There’s myriad problems evinced within the picture, starting with a familiar and often painful script by Wentworth Miller that holds no mystery, suspense or surprise (or at least that’s how it’s constructed on screen, which is odd for a thriller). Stylized to death, Stoker is so hermetically sealed and clinical in its visual presentation that it sucks what little life it possesses out of the room with the repeated violent woosh of unnecessary swish pans. Worse, the movie carries plenty of random and absurd nonsense that doesn’t seem to fit.”
“Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt meets Heathers,” suggests Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “This being a Park movie… depraved urges and grotesque outbursts linger around every turn, but Park’s formalism positions the mayhem within an alluring cinematic tapestry.”
“It’s sophomoric smartness, yet Wasikowska keeps Park and Miller from drowning in it,” argues David D’Arcy in Screen. “Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung tightens the drama with close-ups that capture Wasikowska in poses that look remarkably like Leonardo’s Woman with an Ermine, another icon of concealed intentions. Wasikowska has shown a new depth here, and is sure to be pursued for it.”
“One particularly heated scene will really get people buzzing about an all-grown-up Wasikowska,” adds Ryland Aldrich at Twitch. HitFix‘s Drew McWeeney “wanted the craziest stuff in the film to matter more.” In the Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore finds that “Park’s unsettling visuals and his handling of the cast make the occasional holes in Wentworth Miller’s script practically irrelevant.”
Zero-fun nitpickers will say STOKER has plot/logic holes. I say STOKER has elegantly-spaced vents so its miasma of darkness can best flow…
— James Rocchi (@jamesrocchi) January 21, 2013
Listening. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez interviews Park, producer Jeong Wonjo, and musician Emily Wells.
Updates, 1/24: Stoker “channels the Hammer horror movies of the mid- to late-’60s, when the English studio stopped raiding the Universal stable of classic monsters and started getting more lurid,” writes Time Out New York‘s David Fear. “It’s a Gothic tale told with Park’s usual grand-guignol flourishes, and even if the delicious aesthetic overkill can’t keep the ludicrousness at bay forever, it’s a fun ride on the way to falling apart at the seams.”
Zach Baron at Grantland: “It’s lush, visually stunning, borderline comical—Wasikowska has to simulate not one but two orgasms, the second a screamer tied to a fantasy and/or vision of snapping a local boy’s neck. The Sundance porn wave continues.”
“Stoker owes most of its morbid beauty to the cinematography of Chung-hoon Chung, who regularly works with Park,” notes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “While their latest collaboration may feel less over-the-top than some of their flashier titles, like the insane visuals of Lady Vengeance (2005), it often has the tendency to feel overdressed for its own occasion. But even if by the time it wraps itself up, and it feels like no great mystery has been unearthed, the strengths of Stoker by far make up for any of its minor deficiencies.”
“Full of oblique angles, a pastel palette to offset the morbid story, and creepy cutaways (one extreme close-up shows India sharpening the blood-soaked pencil she just used as a weapon), the film is always lovely to watch, even during its most disturbing sequences,” writes Julie Miller for Vanity Fair.
“With all thrillers, the payoff is as important as the setup,” writes Mother Nature at the House Next Door, “and it’s in the final revelations of the story that Stoker truly falters. A series of flashbacks designed to explain Uncle Charlie’s presence, as well as his motives, are more confounding than clarifying; while the reveal isn’t completely obvious, it still feels too convenient. All of this and more leave Stoker feeling as emotionally hollow as its posturing artistry.”
Update, 1/26: “Stoker cannot quite rival the definitive audacity of Park’s Oldboy or overall thematic ambition of his Vengeance trilogy,” writes William Goss at Film.com, “but the result is a nervy, pervy Hitchcock riff in its own right. If the man plans on sticking around after this to help make American films just a little bit stranger, then more power to him.”
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