South Korean director Park Chan-wook isn’t terribly known outside of fanboy circles, but his reputation is secure, thanks mostly to the hammer-wielding, octopus-slurping genre grinder “Oldboy.” Traditionally a cult hit from a foreign filmmaker leads to a dispiriting American stint, but Park is too much a stylist to get ground up by the Hollywood machine. His English-language debut, “Stoker” finds him in the United States but working on its margins. It’s a serial killer pic, but a Park Chan-wook serial killer pic, which is to say it’s obsessed not with plot or even grisly murders but with visual design, outré ideas and a hothouse atmosphere, no doubt gleaned from watching too many American movies.
It’s a good thing the filmmaker doesn’t care about plot, because it’s not “Stoker”’s strongest point. Park decided his first American film should be the first produced script cowritten by Wentworth Miller, the star of “Prison Break.” A teenager with the loaded name of India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) loses her father in a car accident (allegedly!). The funeral brings forth mysterious uncle Charles (Matthew Goode), who intrigues her first with his handsomeness and sex appeal, and then by revealing that he likes to snap necks with his belt.
Of course, there are twists, but Miller's script also goes to some weird places: India has the hots for her uncle, as does her widowed mom (Nicole Kidman, underused but reliably wild-eyed), and she soon finds herself turned on by his blasé treatment of other people’s lives, leading to a genuinely out there shower scene.
Park grasps onto these elements as tight as he can, doing his best to obscure the silly story with an array of fetishistic phantasmagoria. Park’s images, as ever, are fussy and borderline (and often actually) OCD. It’s not just him showing off (although it’s that, too): the power of surfaces is an idea that tends to be built into his narratives. “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” finds a woman with hot crimson eye shadow whose aggressively stylized revenge masks deeper trauma. Still, despite amplifying its transgressive bits, Park proves unable to get deeper into the script, and frankly seems bored by its machinations. Park works best when astride unbelievable tragedy, as in his best work (thus far), “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.” “Stoker” seems like a placeholder, an excuse to work out his pet themes and talents before a project captures his complete attention. (3 out of 5 Globes)