Widow Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) has crawled into a bottle, weeping.
Teenage daughter India (Mia Wasikowska), already withdrawn from Mom, pulls further into her sullen shell. She hates to be touched, becomes even more of a loner at school, and loses herself in memories of her newly-deceased Dad (Dermot Mulroney) and the heightened sense of the outdoors that he taught her to love.
Then Dad’s brother (Matthew Goode) shows up, all sympathy and smiles. He consoles Evelyn. What does he want from India?
“To be friends.”
She falls under his spell, and his protection. That school where it seems every boy wants to taunt or molest her, the mother who never “got” her? Uncle Charlie makes up for all that. India is intrigued.
It’s a pity she’s too young to have seen Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” The adoring niece in that one soon realized that her Uncle Charlie was not at all what he seems. Is India on her guard, or does she see a new mentor in him?
“Sometimes,” he purrs, “you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.”
The Hollywood debut of Korean filmmaker Chan-Wook Park (“Oldboy”) is a vivid, short exercise in tone, a movie lacking shocks and huge surprises, but one that makes up for that by creeping us out, from start to finish. It’s a film of extreme close-ups of a blister being popped, of fear for characters who pop into the frame, ready to solve Charlie’s mystery – only to never have the chance — of a Daddy Longlegs spider’s slow progress through India’s field of vision. Goode’s occasional furtive glance hints at nefarious plans. Wasikowska’s pale, poker-faced stare beneath her long, dark hair deepens the sense that this is a Goth Girl Gone Wrong.
Kidman manages a lovely hopelessness here. She’s lost, and the one person she should be able to cling to – her daughter – has nothing to do with her. Wasikowska’s exquisitely expressionless reaction to what transpires makes us question her motives, her morality.
The plummy-voiced Goode has a disarming surface charm, something Park and screenwriters Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson undercut by giving away his menace early on. And Park’s showy technique doesn’t wholly gloss over this lack of mystery.
But while the director is no Hitchcock – not yet, anyway – the modest chills of “Stoker” do suggest he’s learned from the Master and could someday be his own “Master of Suspense.”
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent and sexual content
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney
Credits: Directed by Chan-Wook Park, written by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson. A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:38