★★ / ★★★★
During her father’s burial, India (Mia Wasikowska) sees a man observing their mourning from afar. This turns out to be Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), believed to have been traveling the world for many years. Charles is very charming and cultured so India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), invites him to stay with them for a while. India does not think this is a good idea given that they know almost nothing about him.
Daubed with a mysterious atmosphere and directed with a keen eye that allows images to come alive, it is a shame that the final quarter of “Stoker” is wimpy and standard. For a movie that is very careful about creating a well-paced build-up of bizarre events, there is something cheap about relying on guns and bloodshed instead of finding another way, one that feels right, to end the story.
The distance between the grieving mother and daughter is just right. Wasikowska and Kidman are nicely cast because they have a tendency of portraying cold personalities with just enough fire to keep their characters interesting. The screenplay does not give their relationship much depth, but there are enough oddities in their interactions that we cannot help but ask questions. Losing the man of the house is difficult for both of them. When Charlie enters the equation, it is almost as if there is a competition among the women.
When it comes to India and Uncle Charlie, about thirty to forty minutes in, I predicted exactly what is going to happen. However, I enjoyed the images enough that I was able to overlook its lack of excitement. I relished how a lamp in the basement moves back and forth when touched, how the camera lingers on the fingers dancing on the piano as the hand guides them to play beautiful melodies, and how images of past and present are placed on top of one another to draw parallels. It is an understated thriller with a taste bud for poetry and lyricism.
The supporting characters are not given enough time on screen in order to make a difference where the story will veer toward. Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) appears to be knowledgeable about the family’s dark history and Auntie Jen (Jacki Weaver) seems to be deathly afraid Charlie. Meanwhile, India’s classmates, cruel Pitts (Lucas Till) and kind Whip (Alden Ehrenreich), enter and exit the picture for the sake of showing the fact that India is not very popular at school. Their scenes could have been taken out completely and it would not have made much difference; we can tell that India is a loner by just looking at the way she dresses and the manner in which she interacts with people closest to her.
In the beginning, India admits through narration that she has an ability of seeing and hearing things that many people tend to overlook. I wished the writer, Wentworth Miller, had been more willing to play with the possibility that there is something paranormal about our protagonist. The house is palatial and prime for an old-fashioned ghost story. In other words, the material lacks the necessary red herrings so that people like myself will be distracted enough that we are inevitably swept up in the fun of its revelations.
Directed by Chan-wook Park, “Stoker” is visually splendid but it lacks a level of danger that many effective mystery-thrillers possess. It remains in a state of muffled restraint for so long that when it is time to conclude the story, it feels like it is simply trying too hard.