A spider crawls up the leg of 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) early in Park Chan-wook's English-language debut, "Stoker," and she regards it passively, intrigued.
There's a creepy intruder in the Stokers' handsome, isolated estate, but it's India's Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whose existence India was unaware of until he arrived following the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney) in a mysterious car accident. Dashing, cultured and oozing melodramatic evil, he's an homage to Joseph Cotton's Uncle Charlie — a murder in a suit jacket at the dinner table — from Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt."
Park, the celebrated South Korean filmmaker of stylistic, hyper-violent revenge tales ("Oldboy," ''Lady Vengeance") has long drawn Hitchcock comparisons. In "Stoker," he makes them explicit, with references not just to "Shadow of a Doubt," but "Psycho" and maybe even "The Birds," if we can agree that Hitchcock forever owns violent attacks in phone booths.
The plot outlines of "Stoker" from the screenplay by Wentworth Miller, a TV actor and star of "Prison Break," share some of the basics of the nifty "Shadow of a Doubt" and countless other thrillers, but it's emphatically a Park film. In his first Hollywood movie, there isn't even a slight dip in his brilliant, colorful compositions (with his usual cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung), his grisly flesh tearing, or his extreme warping of genre.
But the question with Park (whose "Oldboy" will later this year be released as a remake by Spike Lee) is whether his genre contortions are purely for the fetishistic pleasure of seeing characters and bodies — movies — mangled and bloodied. "Stoker" certainly relies too much on its heavy Gothic atmosphere, but it does add up to something — particularly because of Wasikowska's deft performance.
"Stoker" begins in a lush montage of rhythmic freeze frames of India, with an ominous police car in the background, ruminating in a voice-over about her nature: "Just as a flower doesn't choose its color, we don't choose what we are going to be." The foreshadowing sets the tone for a pulpy coming of age story, where India's transition into womanhood comes via incestuous desires and buried corpses.
With stringy black hair shrouding her face, India is a dour, intelligent introvert — a kind of Victorian shadow of Wasikowska's Jane Eyre. She doesn't like to be touched, not even by her mom (Nicole Kidman), and her acute sensitivity picks up the whispers at her father's funeral, the thundering tick of a metronome and (in one of the many heavy symbols of India's maturation) her loud cracking of a hardboiled eggshell, rolled on a table.
Charlie has an immediate, eerie interest in India. He stays at the house, and a lurid triangle forms between Charlie, India and her mother, Evelyn. Evelyn throws herself at Charlie, who all the while is eyeing India. Visitors like India's aunt (Jacki Weaver) quickly disappear, some on screen and some off.
Park rarely metes out violence with guns, preferring more tactile gruesomeness with objects like scissors or a hammer. Here employed to bloody ends are a rock, a pencil and a belt.
The movie has a dreamy, heightened air. The dialogue is arch and the whole affair is over-the-top; certain moments of sexual release are tacky and unforgettable. The melodrama doesn't rise to Pedro Almodovar levels of sublime, but to intoxicating macabre outlandishness.
The Charlie and Everlyn characters veer too far into camp. Making the best of it are Goode and Kidman, who, with last year's "The Paperboy," has paired two of the most hothouse movies you'll ever see. Their characters aren't anything like real people, and it's such aspects of "Stoker" that make it seem like a mere provocation, one that only marvels at how splayed blood looks on crimson wallpaper.
But Park keeps his cameras close to Wasikowska, whose breathless uncertainty — Is Charlie a spider to shoo or embrace? What kind of flower is she? — propels the film, saving it from becoming suffocated in its masterly formalism.
"Stoker" is an exquisitely made grotesque that crawls up your leg.
"Stoker," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content. Running time: 98 minutes.