Korean director Park Chan-wook, perhaps best known in the West for his "Vengeance" trilogy, makes his English-language debut with Stoker, from a 2010 "Black List" script by Wentworth Miller. The film plays out from the point of view of India Stoker (Mia Wasikowksa), a teenaged girl whose father dies suddenly, leaving her to grieve with an emotionally distant mother Evie (Nicole Kidman). An uncle she's never met before (Matthew Goode) arrives shortly after, a man who India finds herself attracted to despite a suspicion of his motives. When his mysterious arrival coincides with a series of disappearances, India becomes determined to find out whatever secrets he might be hiding.
Park's eye seems to capture the banal, the beautiful, and the grotesque all at once. The opening shots of the film are especially striking, taking in the large gothic landscape on the grounds of India's father's sprawling, ominous-looking estate. Another scene in, which India and her uncle play the piano together, is claustrophobic, disturbing, and strangely beautiful thanks to sumptuous cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon. The entire atmosphere of the piece seems to suggest a looming danger, the potential and aftermath of violence. And while the violence here is more understated than that of Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, it's handled with an unflinching lens that simultaneously tantalizes and implicates the viewer.
The material, a sort of warped echo of Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (Goode's character is even named Uncle Charlie), is intended as an intricate puzzle, slowly coming together before the viewer's eyes. While Stoker does seem determined to explore themes of grief, burgeoning sexuality, and fate through the incestuous triangle of India, Uncle Charlie, and Evie, the nuances of these themes never quite make as much impact as the stylish direction, which overwhelms the story's mystery with its too-heavy leaning on brooding looks, gothic atmosphere, and vague, circuitous dialogue.
With all thrillers, the payoff is as important as the setup, 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.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 17—27.