“The Blackcoat’s Daughter” (2015): A Nuanced Nightmare

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Image source: truehorror.net

There is a wonderful, disorienting shot near the end of The Blackcoat’s Daughter: an exterior image of a road from an aerial point of view, the world swallowed by the darkness of night; we don’t even realize we’re looking at a road until we identify the glow of headlamps and taillights progressing forward at the bottom of the frame. It’s a great moment in a film full of great moments, and the culmination of a motif of shadowy blackness that manifests subtly at first, but becomes something increasingly foreboding and all-consuming as the story progresses.

Cinematic understatement is tricky – it requires a pitch-perfect calibration of elements to create much by illustrating very little (outwardly, anyway). It’s a tightrope-walk that, if I were given the tools of cinema, would probably fuck up in grand fashion. Intimate casts and vagueness of plot, when done correctly, can provide brilliant and unshakable experiences; when utilized poorly, these things can unravel a premise before it’s even established.

Writer-director Oz Perkins (son of Anthony) turns the subtlety and nuance of Daughter into a fully-realized, all-consuming metaphorical (and literal) void, while balancing a premise steeped in devil-worship, possession, and the occult on a thread, bypassing camp and cliche at every turn. We wait for the shoe-dropping moment where the film will inevitably go wrong – in narrative, aesthetic, or performance – but it never happens. Which somehow makes Daughter that much more effective.

In spite (or because) of the minimalist dialog, the actions and images speak volumes for the characters’ despair, fear, and rage. And the specificity of the imagery – with its motifs of darkness and isolation – inspires nightmare-fueled moments on a grand scale.

Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is a student at a Catholic girls’ school. When her parents don’t pick her up during an oddly-placed February break, she is left to reside in the dorms with rebellious Rose (Lucy Boynton), whose reasons for staying behind are more duplicitous. In the meantime, Joan (Emma Roberts) progresses from a lonely bus station to the school, given a lift and shelter by Bill (James Remar), who proclaims that he looks for God in “the unlikely things that happen.” He’s accompanied by his wife, Linda (Lauren Holly), who harbors a considerably less optimistic outlook on life. How these characters connect to one another underlines Perkins’ skill – as viewers who have seen too many horror movies, our thoughts immediately turn to the easiest and most cliched “twists” possible.

But Daughter isn’t playing that game.

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Kat (Kiernan Shipka) phones home in The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Image source: cineplex.com

Perkins looks to a collection of bland objects and settings to heighten “the banality of evil”: he likes doors, especially when they’re ajar (as if to invite in or cast out); he likes trees, especially when the bare tangle of branches obfuscates characters; and he’s fond of stairwells and banisters, especially when they serve as a transition not only from one level of a building to another, but the unseen transference from sanity to insanity. These things are photographed in atypical ways, which only contributes to an overall atmosphere of unease and dread-filled mystery.

The visual nuances are complemented by the subtleties of the ensemble. In a wonderful moment of visual poetry and metaphor, Rose – posing for her class picture – reveals a beautiful “bloom” of a smile (in slow motion, no less) that leads to an unexpected coda later on. Kat, with her braided hair, flat affect, and introverted manner, has moments of rebellion that manifest in subtle smirks and gestures. And Joan, with her perpetually troubled facial expressions and cagey demeanor, engenders sympathy and skepticism in equal measure. All three women embody vulnerability and strength, while maintaining an enigmatic presence throughout.

Yet, in a contradiction of their strength, Perkins often presents this trio as off-center in the frame, dwarfed by their surroundings or crowded into a corner by an imposing torso in the foreground; it makes the viewer want to peek around to see what’s being hidden…no matter how horrible.

Keeping Daughter a family affair, Elvis Perkins contributes the score, which is a categorically ambiguous soundscape of ambient drones (think Mica Levi’s work on Under the Skin, only much weirder) combined with songs that hearken back to bygone eras (the title track, for instance, carries all the scratch, flaw, and mood of a yard-sale vinyl record). I was so consumed by the music’s spell that I watched, entranced, through the end credits.

But perhaps the most interesting takeaway from Daughter is its subtle attention to the facets of faith and belief. That the film takes place at a Catholic school is never used to push any overt messages, and this restraint only helps its observations resonate with greater strength. The best instances of spirituality-based horror – and whether or not an omniscient, all-powerful benevolence or malevolence holds sway over us – are not those that shove it in your face. Despite the pea-soup vomit, The Exorcist understood this extremely well. As did Rosemary’s BabyThe Blackcoat’s Daughter completes an unholy trinity of horror classics that are as viscerally punishing as they are challenging in their boundary-pushing intelligence.

Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars