Posted March 11, 2013 by William Dunmyer in Gothic Horror

Stoker: New Take on Southern Gothic

All style and no substance. “Stoker” looks great; every shot is stunningly beautiful. Director Park Chan-wook, making his first English-language film, demonstrates great visual skill, but no story-telling skill. Park fits right in with the worldwide trend of 21st-century filmmakers functioning as little more than cinematographers.

I appreciate that “Stoker” is avant-garde, refusing to operate within traditional realism. Almost nothing that happens in the film could possibly happen in the real world. I love that. The problem is that the film’s lurid imagination doesn’t produce any insight. None of it adds up to anything. It also moves along at a very plodding, slow pace. Park may know how to photograph a great shot, but he has no idea how to edit a great sequence.

When we meet the Stoker family (great name — presumably a tribute to Bram Stoker at least in part), the father has just died. The father’s brother, Uncle Charles (an eerie and magnetic Matthew Goode), moves in with the mother (Nicole Kidman) and daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska). Other family members show up briefly to express puzzling concern about this menage-a-trois. The film presents a vague sense of dread about Uncle Charles. What does the extended family know about him that we don’t?

The handsome, debonair Charles has a strange, almost erotic interest in both the mother and daughter. He frequently follows India home from high school, for example, being both creepy and beguiling.

When India gets nearly raped, Uncle Charles miraculously appears to protect her. The two then team up to kill the would-be rapist. The murder is not bloody, but it is brutal. And here’s the thing: Park films it in an erotic way. The moment when the boy’s neck breaks is treated as something close to an orgasm. This causes India to become intensely drawn to Uncle Charles. Bonding through killing and vengeance.

I like this brutal new take on Southern Gothic, but Park goes nowhere with it. As an artist, he doesn’t seem to be saying anything with it, except maybe: Isn’t this sexy and cool?

Over time, Uncle Charles’s secrets are exposed, and it’s revealed that he is a fairly ordinary psychopath. But India can’t shake off his influence that easily, and she begins to follow in his footsteps. The film ends in a bloody sequence that again is staged and photographed erotically.

I like Park’s dark imagination, his resistance to realism, and his visual artistry. But if he doesn’t start adding depth to his stories, his films are going to be little more than a footnote in the history of cinema. He’s also got to learn the art of editing. His sense of cinematic rhythm is god-awful.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.