Overview: Two girls are left at Catholic boarding school over winter break, and one of them has a mysterious connection to the devil. A24; 2017; Rated R; 93 minutes.
What Was in the Holy Water?: The Blackcoat’s Daughter, formally titled February, is a cold film. The winter setting is only partly the reason why. It’s a film devoid of warmth, love, and God, and the absence of which is explored through three girls. The film opens in the aftermath of Kat’s (Kiernan Shipka) nightmare and the camera follows her as she marks off the days on her calendar which lead to the date her parents are supposed to visit, a date marked with a heart. But Kat’s parents don’t come, and so she is held back from love, on the cusp of finding it but ultimately tricked into accepting poor replacement. The second girl, Rose (Lucy Boynton), thinks she’s pregnant and decides to stay an extra day at school so that she can tell her boyfriend. We don’t see Rose tell him, but we see the end of the conversation where she brusquely (or rather, coldly) breaks things off with him. The third girl, Joan (Emma Roberts), who isn’t at the school but is steadily making her way to it, may have mysterious motives but her loneliness and isolation are no less evident as she hitchhikes with a couple traveling to place flowers on their daughter’s grave. Writer/director Oz Perkins displays little fondness for these three girls as characters, or those they briefly encounter. They feel like interior set pieces, effectively moved around to create small hollows in the pits of our stomachs, but kept at a distance that calls for sympathy rather than empathy. We’re kept on the outside of this narrative, staring in through a frosted glass window, scratching to get in and at least experience a little warmth.
Gone to Bed on an Unclean Head?: Oz Perkins peers around corners, offering shadowed glimpses of insight into the evil at play throughout The Blackcoat’s Daughter. The connection between the girls and the exact circumstances of Kat’s possession aren’t revealed until later, though the narrative reveal can be surmised quite early as the film shifts perspectives to each of the three girls. Even as Perkins purposefully restricts our knowledge and our ability to feel much beyond curiosity for these characters, the three girls are played with a fascinating delicacy so fragile that they all seem on the verge of breaking. The standout among these performances is Kiernan Shipka whose subtle possession is portrayed with tightly bound mirth that’s socially inappropriate and deceptively good-natured. While so many possession tales go for the big, explosive moments of shock, Kat’s is so restrained that we’re waiting for an explosion that doesn’t come, which makes the viewer all the more uneasy. The film’s lethargic pacing doesn’t quite allow that unease to be built upon for any significant amount of time, but Shipka is so convincing in her role that the moments of genuine unease linger even after the film has shifted focus. While there’s a sense that the film could have done more with each of the characters, particularly given how much breathing room the scenes are given, Shipka’s performance as Kat is a standout among recent horror performances.
The Angels, They Forgot Her: The film’s final reveal brings home the notions of isolation and abandonment here. To say much more would spoil a film that doesn’t have much narrative to mask in misdirection. But the idea of being left alone, and abandoned, only to find companionship with the devil, and ultimately have that taken away as well, is handled with a kind of cyclical thematic satisfaction of a tone poem in The Blackcoat’s Daughter. If the film allowed viewer to get closer to the characters, it would have created a twisted kind of emotional satisfaction as well, one that explores the post-traumatic aftermath of horror like these films rarely do, but we’re only treated to glimpses of that kind of satisfaction. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is impressively calculated with a perfect beginning and ending, but one can’t help but wish the film had taken a few deviations in its middle before closing its loop so completely.
Overall: The Blackcoat’s Daughter operates in the vein of the Gothic tradition, and while there are some grisly moments, it lacks a certain lewdness in its follow-through, given the subject matter. Those expecting bold, overt horror won’t find it here as the film prescribes to many of the trappings that indie-horror films are often criticized for. While those criticisms rarely ring true on a personal analysis, The Blackcoat’s Daughter does occasionally feel like it’s succumbing to the catch-all indie-horror criticism of being all atmosphere while nothing happens. Things do happen in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and what happens is intriguing and well-planned but it’s difficult not to wish that a fair bit more of it was happening because there are flickers of greatness within it. Still, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is an impressive directorial debut that is anchored by strong performances, each of whom we’d be fortunate to see a lot more of within the genre, because this foray seems like a surface scratch, with greater things waiting beneath.
A24 and DirecTV will release The Blackcoat’s Daughter in theaters and On Demand March 31, 2017.
Featured Image: A24