Near the beginning of "Stoker," there's a scene in which India Stoker, a young woman who at the age of 18 has just lost her father, is shown crushing an egg against a table until its outer shell is riddled with cracks. Director Park Chan-wook zooms in for extreme close-ups, coupled with shots of India darkly glaring over the breakfast table. The sound design emphasizes the breaking of the shell, almost as if the viewer is trapped inside.
It doesn't take a metaphorical decoder ring to see what's going on here: India (Mia Wasikowska) is a bad egg -- and she's about to crack.
"Stoker" is a dark, overtly Hitchcockian chronicle of that process. With a push from her brooding, mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) -- a nod to a similarly murderous and mysterious character of the same name in Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" -- India explores her darkest impulses and learns to embrace them. It's a twisted coming of age tale in which reaching maturity means becoming the monster one was destined to be.
India's journey begins with Charlie's appearance at her father's funeral: He soon moves in with India and her mother (Nicole Kidman), charming both at the same time he exploits their anxieties. Charlie brings more than a hint of menace to their home, as well as a host of tensions to the mother-daughter relationship, if you can call it that. Mr. Goode makes an effective creep, and Miss Kidman makes the anxieties of an aging housewife believable, but there's not a hint of believable humanity to the family dynamic. The triangular manipulation is pure thriller stuff, an entirely artificial concoction designed strictly for creepiness and tension.
Mr. Park, a respected Korean director making his English-language debut, delivers plenty of creepiness, dialing up the heat on India's violent tendencies until the inevitable release. That's par for the course in his oeuvre, which is packed with tales of betrayal, violence and slow-cooked revenge.
Like many of Mr. Park's Korean films, "Stoker" is a story of a fractured family and violence passed through generations. But while it is as immaculately crafted as anything he's ever made, it lacks the visceral kick of his best movies. Nor does it manage the emotional wallop of "Oldboy," a terrifying revenge thriller that makes Quentin Tarantino's harshest tales seem positively tame. In "Stoker," by contrast, Mr. Park remains a compelling stylist but seems oddly disengaged from the action.
Much of that distance, however, is simply a feature of the screenplay by Wentworth Miller, which comes across as a revision or two short: Mr. Miller's story is built on a handful of big twists, but he doesn't seem to know what to do with his characters when he's not leading into a big reveal. Too many scenes are vague and overly focused on metaphorical intrigue.
Still, "Stoker" is worth seeing for Mr. Park's visual panache, which effectively covers many of the story's flaws and cracks.
CREDITS: Directed by Park Chan-wook, screenplay by Wentworth Miller
RATING: R for brief nudity, violence, language
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS