If Hitchcock’s classic Shadow of a Doubt was a family thriller with incestuous undertones, Stoker is a family thriller with incestuous overtones. And that’s part of its problem. As uncompromisingly stylized and seemingly creative Stoker is, subtlety never enters the equation and any depth within the characters and the story is hammered into your head with a Looney Tunes-sized mallet.
Like Shadow of a Doubt, Stoker is about a misunderstood young girl (India, played by Mia Wasikowska) who finds out that her mysterious uncle who is visiting (Charles, played by Matthew Goode) might be a ruthless killer. In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten’s killer uncle’s crime was more systematic, he was basically murdering widows to lay claim on their fortunes.
Charles’ murders are more pointless and psychotic, as if Cotten’s character is replaced by Anthony Perkins’ (NOT Vince Vaughn’s, don’t make me puke) portrayal of Norman Bates. Also, I don’t remember a scene in Shadow of a Doubt where the young girl masturbates in the shower after the uncle snaps a date-rapist’s neck like a twig.
Yes, India is a bit of an odd cookie herself and her sudden character arc, even though conveniently covered by an art-house aura, belongs in the basest form of exploitation. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long we are willing to call a blood-soaked spade a blood-soaked spade.
I think director Chan-Wook Park was aware that he was dealing with a generic thriller screenplay, written by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, looking for shock value in blatant incest and sociopathic behavior. It looks like he was hired for his first American feature to bring some artistic credibility to this stale story. I can imagine the producers patting themselves on the back saying, "He dealt with over-the-top violence and incest with Oldboy. Why don’t we sign him up?"
I looked up on Google to find out if “overdirecting” is an actual word. Although it turns out you can use it on Scrabble, there isn’t a specific description. If there was, the first half of Stoker might be used as precedent. I think Park realized that especially the first half of the screenplay was entirely too slow and predictable. You know, we meet the mysterious uncle and then family members begin to disappear conveniently.
Therefore as a directorial Hail Mary pass, Park floods his film with unnecessary fast cutting, pointless breaking of common camera angle laws, wild camera moves (One shot follows a belt as it’s being pulled out of a pair of pants flap-by-flap) and for some reason, constant use of insanely tall headroom. Unusually tall headroom mostly happens because the projector didn’t frame the aspect ratio correctly but this was a digital screening so this was definitely the way Park intended for Stoker to be seen.
During the second half, as the sociopathic behavior inherent in both leads is pulled to the foreground and the bodies start piling up, Park takes a step back and lets the organic flow of the story get a bit of a breathing space.
Overall, this is a mildly effective thriller, no doubt about that. The performances are solid, especially by Matthew Goode, and most of the execution has a haunting quality. But it has, as Emperor Joseph II once put so succinctly, “too many notes”. It’s hard to focus on the story itself because the filmmakers constantly remind us that we are supposed to be watching an artistic and endlessly creative modern thriller masterpiece.