‘Stoker’ confusingly strides between excellent and terrible

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Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker like a basilisk. She saunters around every room in her house like a pale, leathery reptile with a sharp ear for eerie household rhythms and melodies. Beyond human capacity, India recognizes even the subtlest sounds in her surroundings: an inconspicuous spider crawling up her leg; a spout of blood spewed between the tawny grass blades on the roadside; the muffled steps of her uncle’s perfectly laced, leather-brown shoes entering a house in mourning. Even more perceptible and ominous are her eyes. India locks a lethal gaze with every soul. Before she even turns toward a classmate taunting her with insults, her eyes burn wide with a toxic menace that informs us about her actions before she even commits them. Her senses are too acute for a normal human being.

“Stoker” shares the same masterfully creepy and super-detailed sound and visual designs that made director Park Chan-wook’s vampire thriller “Thirst” (2009) such a discomforting jolt. Park fills the voids of dialogue with sinister sounds that adequately evoke India’s preternatural hearing ability. There’s a sequence in which the camera alternates between shots of India descending toward a crumbling basement and shots of a flirtatious encounter between her mother and uncle up in the kitchen. It’s both visually arresting and genuinely tantalizing, even if Park’s approach seems to verge into old horror-movie trope territory. The power of the film’s sound design even seems to double when Uncle Charlie steps across the house foyer. It’s clear Uncle Charlie is also gifted with India’s exceptional hearing.

Unlike in “Thirst,” however, the characters in “Stoker” aren’t vampires (although the intense play of emotions between the central characters and their thirst for bloodlust do echo a vampiric vibration). Something’s not quite right with estranged Uncle Charlie, whose sudden and unexpected appearance and creepy fixation on Evelyn and India don’t rub well with us. Even more disturbing are the many hints of quiet, incestuous foreplay between Charlie and the Stoker women. Park’s decadent treatment of Charlie’s fascination with India — its growing sexual nature only exacerbating our revulsion — doesn’t help to soothe our fears.

Park doesn’t even try to hide the unpleasantness behind the central characters’ relationships. Evelyn and India feel more like parasites to each other than a mother-daughter relationship. Their respective treatments of Uncle Charlie, even if Evelyn’s feels wonderfully erotic and India’s bizarrely psychosexual, are frightening to watch. And Park, too concerned with keeping the suspense aloft, plays with our minds for far too long, and our patience wears out. What causes even more viewer anxiety is how ambivalent Park is when trying to make his audience identify with and root for these morally repugnant characters and making us fear and wish them ill omen.

The deal-breaker for this movie, however, proves to be just how obsessed it is with its aesthetic pleasures that it forgoes a far more important element: characterization. The patchy storytelling prevents the actors from thoroughly developing their characters. Park is so concerned with maintaining the suspense for as long as possible that he keeps the audience at sea about the characters to the extent that we’re never able to grapple with whom these individuals really are. Beyond their inherent eeriness, they never really make sense.

Ironically, the bipolar direction makes “Stoker” both an excellent and a terrible film at different times. Park’s approach takes “Stoker” into areas of malevolently visual sensuality as much as he takes it into claustrophobic levels of control. Sometimes, you feel you’re in the hands of a master. Other times, you wonder if he knows what the hell he’s doing.

Braulio Ramirez covers film. Contact him at [email protected].