THE TITLE OF KOREAN AUTEUR Park Chan-wook’s first English-language film, Stoker, operates on two levels. The movie’s main trio shares the same surname as the author of Dracula, just one of many nods to iconic texts. But in the more generic sense of the term, Stoker, written by first-time scripter Wentworth Miller, belies its moniker: Despite its garrotings, incestuous triangulating, self-pleasuring, and bloodletting, this phlegmatic project, fastidiously framed and art-directed, neither stirs up nor excites but lulls.
Park is best known for his “Vengeance” trilogy, whose second installment, Oldboy (2003), has recently been remade by Spike Lee (the redo will be released this fall). In Stoker, he returns to a familiar motif: predetermined protagonists (especially evident in Park’s previous feature, the 2009 vampire movie Thirst). “Just as the flower does not choose its color, we do not choose who we will be,” says eighteen-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) in voice-over. With her Wednesday Addams–ish, middle-parted hair and saddle shoes, the accoutrements and fashion choices of this straight-A student suggest that Stoker takes place sometime during the Lyndon Johnson administration—a setting further intimated by the lavish midcentury modern furniture and decor of the mansion India inhabits with her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and the recurrence of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s 1967 hit “Summer Wine.”
We are, in fact, in the present day (a character mentions 1994, India’s birth year), though the fussy, anachronistic mise-en-scène helps ensure that Stoker remain embalmed. (Imagine Last Year at Marienbad as directed by Wes Anderson.) The film opens with a funeral—that of India’s beloved father, who used to take his saturnine daughter on hunting trips—and the arrival of a relative she never knew she had, her paternal uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Like the character of the same name played by Joseph Cotten in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the urbane Charlie is a killer; his bloodlust, which India quickly suspects, both fascinates and repels her. The newcomer’s love of Il trovatore, fluency in French, and gourmet-cooking skills also turn on somnambulant Evelyn, prone to sleeping well past noon, seemingly in perpetual mourning not for her dead husband but for the withering of her own once prodigious gifts.
“She hates to be touched,” Evelyn, explaining her daughter’s coldness, tells Charlie shortly after he shows up. But India loves touching herself, apparently: Her operatic slo-mo orgasm in the shower releases the pent-up thrills over witnessing her first murder. That Charlie’s damaged DNA has been passed onto his niece is reinforced repeatedly and with increasingly diminishing returns. Biochemistry may be destiny, but nothing seems quite as overdetermined as Stoker itself, with two of its principal cast, Kidman and especially Goode, rarely breaking out of their camp-glazed waxworks performing styles. Unsurprisingly, only the redoubtable Wasikowska, who, two years ago, gave the definitive portrayal of Jane Eyre in Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel, can evince the nuances of her broadly sketched character. “I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,” Evelyn fumes to India toward Stoker’s end, in a sub–Mommie Dearest exchange. The line is spoken to the only sentient actor in the film.
Stoker opens in limited release on March 1.