“Stoker” disorients. After the first opening segments — drifting memories and fragments of noises — one might beseechingly reach out an arm for support, or for a tangible detail to provide some basis for understanding. But alas, this would be a fruitless task. “Stoker” brushes aside coherence of narrative and stability in favor of flourishes of the camera and a sense of the eerie. The moments of clarity, while few and far between, prove that “Stoker” could’ve been one of the movies of the year, but ultimately, the clutter overwhelms.

Stoker

B
At the State

Fox Searchlight Pictures


In a word, “Stoker” tries. The script, penned by Wentworth Miller (“Prison Break”), strives to intrigue with a story (actually, story might be too coherent for “Stoker”; it’s more of an idea) of incestuous, erotic murder themes. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska, “Lawless”) loses her father in a tragic accident; she’s moody and strange. Her mother (Nicole Kidman, “The Paperboy”) seems to get over the death quickly; creepy, charming Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode, “Watchmen”) moves in with the two after “traveling the world.” What follows is a lot of hinting at menace. There’s tension, but it ultimately adds up to the movie pleasuring itself.

Miller attempts the provocative, but his dialogue and metaphors move between utterly obvious and horribly clunky. As Charlie “hunts,” a TV in the background shows a nature program on eagles in which they “kill their own family” to ensure their own survival. Hints like this don’t only induce groans of “duh,” but they also thrust the audience out of the movie. It becomes apparent that Someone wrote this film.

Moments between the family at the dinner table also strain credibility. It makes sense that the tension and unhinged nature of Uncle Charlie might make small talk difficult — but it’s hard not to wonder, “Have these people ever said normal things outside of the context of poorly shielding underlying motives and emotional/sexual turmoil?” Probably not, because the characters in “Stoker” don’t embody human emotions.

Despite all this, “Stoker” compels in small ways and begins to find some solid ground toward the final act. Details of Uncle Charlie are squirmy in all the right ways, and Goode plays the character with occasional depth. His long belt (and the leather slide of him slipping it off his pants) is legitimately frightening, and the piano scene that Goode shares with Wasikowska is slimy and wonderful and gross — it’s an uncomfortable (and erotic) display that shows how good “Stoker” can be.

Director Chan-wook Park (“Oldboy”) stifles the early scenes, but eventually gives the film more space and sets up some awesome moments. The colors he adds accentuate the overall mood, and some of his transitions show real ingenuity. Park was obviously playing with the film, trying new things. In a sense, this defines “Stoker,” but it may have been refreshing to have a steadier hand control the movie, especially because the foundation of “Stoker” is already so creaky.

Family, what it means and what it makes us — this is the main idea behind “Stoker.” The climax centers on that question, and at the height of the film’s tension, a mad-eyed Kidman whispers: “You were supposed to love me, weren’t you?” It’s a heartbreaking appeal, one that nearly salvages “Stoker,” almost convinces us that some humanity exists amid the miasma of menace and confusion that inundates the rest of the movie. But one line can’t lift an entire narrative — “Stoker” proves that.

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