It’s a simple enough tale.
A father (Richard Stoker played in flashback by Dermot Mulroney) dies, leaving his dependent, self-destructive wife (Evelyn Stoker played by a fragile Nicole Kidman) and strangely self-contained daughter — all buttoned-up in Peter Pan collars, with the same style of shoes since birth (India Stoker played by the waif-like Mia Wasikowska) — in mourning.
A long-lost uncle (Charlie Stoker played by the chilling but charming Matthew Goode) decides to overstay; an aunt (Gwendolyn Stoker played by Jackie Weaver) drops by and leaves quickly, obviously nervous about the situation. The mother and uncle strike up a too-friendly relationship. The stalker-friendly uncle and just-18 niece circle each other in a wary, too-sensual manner. There’s a piano duet that’s provocative enough to singe ivory.
All of it’s really designed to unsettle you. Should I be worried that I was fascinated?
What did I like about this movie? Apart from the consistent technical quality?
The mood is painstakingly set with little details of creepiness. A blister bubbling up after being pricked. The sound of a hard-boiled egg cracking as it is rolled on a table. A spider climbing up a teenage girl’s leg and under her skirt. A hanging lamp deliberately set to swinging in an already atmospheric basement, spotlighting a dressmaker’s dummy. A pencil sharpener shaving off blood from the pencil tip.
Chan-wook Park is pretty much a master of the detail, and you tend to get mesmerized with each subtle reveal. If you pay attention closely enough, you can predict certain things… in fact, the back-and-forth storytelling can fool you into a sense of precognition. Your mind leaps to a conclusion because you’ve already been offered a glimpse, but then the director backtracks. You’re given a new detail that lends a different tenor to the scene. So you’re left with an unsettled feeling much like a trick of the eye befuddles the brain, which has to catch up to the stimuli.
The big mystery here is not who Uncle Charlie is, or what happened in the past, but really, as one character asked point-blank, who is India Stoker? The film is about her coming-of-age, her acceptance of her nature and coming-to-grips with loss, and yes, even her sexual awakening (in Elektra fashion, through the uncle/surrogate-father). What happens when a trained hunter’s killing instinct is roused?
Perhaps the movie does not have the dramatic turns that the director is known for — it’s quieter, less brash, but since it is told primarily from the point of view of a watchful India, it’s perfect in that sense.
I like this director because he explores taboo subjects in a thoughtful manner. I like this movie because as a character study, it’s fairly engrossing.