Of all the films to share an ending similar to Spring Breakers, an atmospheric psychological thriller from a South Korean director wouldn't seem the most likely candidate. But it's the final act of Stoker that saves this studied fable of familial dysfunction and teen angst.
Director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) layers K-horror tropes onto a premise drawn from Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. In the wake of her father's death, 18-year-old India (Mia Wasikowska) and her emotionally distant mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) are visited by long-lost Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode, adopting the same name as Joseph Cotten's character in Hitchcock's film). The appearance of this tall, dark stranger triggers mysterious dread from everyone—including the family's housekeeper and great Auntie Gin (Jacki Weaver)—except the flirtatious Evelyn and already moody India.
Making his English-language debut, Park struggles to modulate the cadence of the dialogue and produce realistic caricatures—India's male high school classmates look like extras from a European stage production of West Side Story. And Park's hyperstylized direction nearly sucks any spontaneity from the film during its establishing stages—at one point, a close-up of Kidman's reddish hair dissolves into an overhead shot of wild reeds. But, once the aesthetics start servicing the storyline—and Charlie literally loosens his belt a bit—the bloody, psychosexual mysteries of this neo-Southern Gothic tale (filmed in and around Nashville, Tenn.) gradually come into tantalizing focus. This includes the open question—stoked by Park—of how much of this story reveals the truth about Charlie and how much are figments of India's imagination.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Set it off."