Blood falls in fine sprays in the feverish Gothic thriller Stoker. This is a restraint from South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's usual violent impulses. Normally, blood gathers in sticky pools in Park's work, particularly his addictively stylish, deeply disquieting "Vengeance" trilogy, which includes the international hit Oldboy. For most of Stoker, his English-language debut, Park explores the turbulent feelings of a moody teenage girl, but the director eventually lets his visceral artistry off the leash.
Mia Wasikowska of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland plays India Stoker, a brooding high schooler in rural Connecticut who's heartbroken when her beloved father dies of a mysterious accident on her 18th birthday. At the funeral, India glimpses an indistinct figure at the cemetery, who turns out to be her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she's never met and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) seems to barely know.
A calm, confident figure, Uncle Charlie ingratiates himself into the household and settles down for an extended visit after years of ill-defined travels. Normally brittle and high-strung, Evelyn flirts openly with her late husband's brother, swapping her mourning dress for tennis whites. India views him with more suspicion, although the audience suspects that she views most people as alien and unknowable, apart from dead old dad, who took her on long hunting trips.
Uncle Charlie's charms begin to win her over, and India suspects that he shares her fondness for hunting, only for different prey. At one point, Charlie and India engage in a swoony piano duet that starts as a battle for musical domination, and then segues into something more sensual. But was Charlie with her at the piano at all? At times, Stoker's scenes contradict themselves, and we don't know if we're seeing reality or flights of India's fancy — or if even she can tell the difference. Wasikowska projects enough of India's mixed feelings that we empathize with her even when she begins making morally questionable choices.
While Park seldom shows David Lynch's command of thematic complexity, he demonstrates a similar power to create tension in seemingly mundane circumstances. With a stalker's point of view, his camera scrutinizes characters from unusual angles, generating suspense when the family shares a quiet dinner or when India searches for a hidden birthday present.
Screenwriter Wentworth Miller draws on Alfred Hitchcock's underrated Shadow of a Doubt as an inspiration, with both films depicting a mysterious Uncle Charlie from a young woman's point of view. Where Hitchcock explored the idea of evil lurking in a seemingly idyllic American town, the South Korean director seems less comfortable with Americana. Scenes in which India faces off with high school bullies seem like poor imitations of a 1950s melodrama about juvenile delinquents.
Stoker instead implies that extreme compulsions lie within everyone, and that the strangest turn of events would be if nothing horrible happened. The film never achieves the wild catharsis of Park's best Korean work, but for a while fosters in the audience a healthy mistrust of reality.