Just because something is unsettling doesn't make it involving.
A thriller with evocative cinematic flourishes, Stoker (* * out of four; rated R; opens Friday nationwide) is disjointed and hollow, its surreal style devoid of substance.
Veteran Korean director Park Chan-wook's trademark blend of feverish violence and stunning beauty is evident in his first American feature.
But the nightmarish story never quite finds its footing. Disturbing moments don't generate the requisite sense of dread. It's in Hitchcock's wheelhouse, without approaching his films' tautly chilling suspense.
A Gothic thriller blended with a coming-of-age tale, it's filled with psycho-sexual imagery. Throw in a demented uncle with incestuous tendencies, a mentally unhinged mother and a scary, isolated mansion, and the ingredients for a lurid, spine-tingling scare-fest add up.
The film invokes the last name of Dracula author Bram Stoker as a symbol of evil. It is also the surname of a creepy family. At its center is India (Mia Wasikowska), a quiet girl with morbid fascinations. She's bordering on adulthood but still wears saddle shoes and climbs trees. Her father (Dermot Mulroney) knew how to channel her unusual proclivities and watchful nature through frequent hunting trips.
His philosophy: "Sometimes you have to do something bad to keep you from doing something worse."
But at the start of the story, on India's 18th birthday, her father is killed in a fiery car crash. She mourns alone, burying her nose in a book about burial rites.
Scenes of the world around India are the visual equivalent of lines of obscure poetry - though the passages don't quite add up to anything substantive.
Just after her father's funeral, India's uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to stay at their house. India had never known her uncle existed, and it's clear that something about the man, with his penetrating stare, is a little off. But he also oozes seductive charm. His allure draws India and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), into a jealous standoff.
The more we learn about her uncle's past, the less likely it is that he could come off as so worldly and slick. Much about his character, as conceived by screenwriter Wentworth Miller, doesn't track. But Goode does a fine job of alarming the audience, conveying menace in the most casual of gestures.
The dialogue he's given undermines his physical acting skills, however. "What kind of family is family you can't take home," he whines vaguely.
Wasikowska is less effective as the enigmatic India. Initially she's the protagonist, but the film veers away from establishing her as a sympathetic character - especially in light of her unusually malicious use of a pencil. Kidman puts in a forgettable performance - almost as if she were breathily phoning it in. Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver shows up for a dose of normalcy but is on-screen too briefly.
The domestic drama grows kinkier amid hallucinatory visuals, but with its meandering style and gaping plot holes, the sense of peril it aims to build is undercut. Also, Chan-wook's unusual camera moves serve more as artificial distractions than to heighten the sense of danger.
While some of the scenes are oddly arresting, the plot feels forced, mannered and, ultimately, vacuous. By the conclusion, what should have come off as intriguing is merely airless and aimless.
Blood-spattered, sadistic and tedious, Stoker is more fragmented than frightening.