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Edelstein on Stoker: No Sympathy for This Lady Vengeance

Park Chan-wook’s first English-­language feature, Stoker, has nothing obviously to do with Bram Stoker or his landmark vampire novel, Dracula—apart from having main characters who look like ghouls hungry for human flesh. Ghouls would be the best audience for it, too. Early on, the 18-year-old rich-girl protagonist, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), drains a big blister in close-up while chattering in voice-over on the subject of free will versus destiny. (“Just as a flower doesn’t choose its color, so we don’t choose what we are going to be.”) Is the fluid meant to symbolize the poisoned nectar within India, whose beloved dad died in an inexplicable accident on the day she came of age? Or is it merely the Korean bad-boy director saying, “Howdy, America, here’s my brand of cum shot!” It’s both, of course — a symbol and a punk provocation. Park didn’t write or conceive this vile little family-chamber horror drama. But he’s marking his territory. He’s saying conventional morality (let alone “ladylike” behavior) will have no purchase here. He’s saying, “There will be pus.”

The script by Wentworth Miller (best known as one of the leads on the Fox drama Prison Break) has a tantalizing joke at the center: What if in Alfred Hitchcock and Thornton Wilder’s Shadow of a Doubt there had been some deep affinity between Uncle Charlie and his supposed niece — a genuine blood tie? This Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up unannounced at the Stoker manse before his brother’s mangled corpse is even in the ground and starts making eyes at both India and her brittle mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman). He has some eyes to make. They’re glassy, bulgy, and never seem to blink. He’s like Dwight Frye in Dracula gazing on a nice, juicy spider — only the whole world is his spider. He is instantly tight with Evie: They whisper and wander off together while India glowers, practically mouthing Hamlet’s “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Her daddy (Dermot Mulroney) appears in flashback. He was her best friend. He taught her how to hunt — and to wait … and wait … before pulling the trigger. He made a point of stuffing every creature she shot. He could have been the NRA’s Father of the Year. Will India have vengeance?

Vengeance in Park’s movies is a loaded topic, as you can tell from the titles of two of his most acclaimed works, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. In those films and Oldboy, the lust for retribution turns even good people inside out—and when it finally comes it feels too rank to enjoy. The big question is whether Park is examining the drive toward revenge — perhaps the most persistent drive in modern mainstream movies — or using it as an excuse to pile horror on top of horror. I used to think he was getting at something serious. Now, I’m not so sure. In any case, India is a relatively passive avenger, which means Stoker has long, dead stretches in which there’s little to do but wallow in the arch atmosphere of upper-class decadence (Philip Glass and Ted Caplan provide faux-classical piano duets for the characters to play) and watch the flares of Wasikowska’s upper lip as she slays her uncle and mother in her mind. But she doesn’t know Uncle Charlie’s real game.

Wasikowska drabs herself down. Her body is undefined in dowdy clothes, her hair hangs limply. But her eyes usher you into her inner world, with its battle between girlish longing and the impatience to move on and be what she really is — whatever that might be. It’s a richer performance than the movie deserves. As her mother, Kidman doesn’t rise above the material in the same way. The character is brittle, repressed, useless at connecting with her daughter, helpless to keep from being magnetized by her dead husband’s more accessible younger brother — and the casting is too on the nose. Kidman’s face is a tight mask, her neck crazy-long, as if stretched to the snapping point by force of will. It’s hard to look at her, frankly — or at her most frequent scene partner, Mr. Bulgy. You know you’re in scary company when the warmest character is played by Jacki ­Weaver — who raised the bar for psychotic matriarchs in Animal Kingdom.

Besides noodling around with Shadow of a Doubt, Miller might have something else on his mind — or at least lodged in his unconscious. He’s biracial, with a black father and a white mother, and the idea of schisms in the body that battle for dominance must be more than abstract for him. The problem with Park Chan-­Wook is that there’s no real drama in his worldview. The drive toward cruelty is absolute — and in this case, absolutely boring.

This article originally appeared in the March 4 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Macall Polay/Fox Searchlight