Continuing the recent trend of playing the closing credits at the beginning of the film, much like Tar or Skinamarink, Corey Deshon’s directorial debut Daughter sets itself apart from those titles by instantly hooking the viewer in with a tense foot-chase through an undisclosed, rocky-mountain type location, as the names of cast and crew play over the action. The grainy 16-mm film visual in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio exudes tonal comparisons to the original (and the best) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, immediately feeling like the sense of danger is imminent, because you’ve seen how movies that look like this have played out before.
As the unknown woman is chased through the treacherous terrain, the hazmat-suit and gas-mask-wearing chasers make ground, with one wielding a hammer, ready to strike. Unfortunately for this unknown woman, her attempt at escape fails, and she is brutally and bluntly beaten to death by the mysterious pursuers.
“Do you know why we had to do that?” is gruffly asked by one masked person to the seemingly younger masked person. “You know you could have stopped this from happening.” He continues. Cut to black, and the title card of: Daughter, hits the screen. That’s how you hook an audience. That’s how you start a movie!
Father (Casper Van Dien) approaches another nameless woman, who is now bound to the ground in a garage of sorts. Obviously frightened of the situation at hand, she cowers back as the physically intimidating Father commands with a deep baritone and authoritative voice that this young lady will have the opportunity for her freedom if she complies with the rules set out by Father.
Sister (Vivien Ngo), as she will now be called, has been forcibly taken in by Father to complete his family as a surrogate daughter, and her goal is to assimilate into the family by befriending, in an intimate sibling way, to her ‘Brother’ (Ian Alexander). If she complies, and succeeds in being a good sister, and daughter to Mother (Elyse Dinh), she will have her freedom back in a few years.
Living in an isolated home, Father runs a strict household in which he lectures Brother on daily religious teachings and stories about a diseased world. All the while, the complacent Mother performs the outdated gender stereotypical chores that Father expects of her. However, as the relationship between Sister and Brother grows, the less control Father seems to have over his family.
Daughter isn’t necessarily a premise that is entirely original, but the confident direction from filmmaker Corey Deshon adds a unique spin on the film that is psychologically disturbing, viscerally intense and entirely engaging. Deshon’s choice to shoot the film to look like a low-fi horror film from the 1970s adds to the grittiness and dirtiness of the film’s atmosphere. While Father’s house is clean, and their clothing is neat and tidy, the general vibe around the situation just feels icky, and Deshon’s directorial decisions on a visual level add to that immensely.
There are spectacular shots (specifically a mirror shot involving Sister) that shows a confidence in Deshon’s visual story telling. The closed in aspect ratio gives a claustrophobic feeling that there is no escape from this house, or the clutches of Father. Even the exaggerated camera angles that show Father towering over everyone solidifies that unfair power dynamic throughout.
Another strength to the film is the sparing use of violence. The brutality of this film is more so held in the idea of imprisonment and forced to be familial against the will of Sister. Which makes the scenes of violence that do emerge, all the more effective and toe-curling.
The tension in Daughter can be cut with a knife. Deshon isn’t afraid to hold shots long enough that feel like anything could unpredictably happen at any time, especially in the film’s first half. There are a few scenes as Sister becomes more assimilated with family that can feel repetitive or a touch too long, but there is definitely an argument to be made about that being the outward expression of how Sister feels in this situation.
With the majority of Daughter confined to one location, a lot of the engagement relies on the performances, of which everyone does a stellar job. Ngo’s overall arc for Sister within the film is incredibly engaging, and as an audience, makes it easy to be emotionally invested in her need to escape. There is also a duality in the performances of Dinh and Alexander that is quite interesting, as they are usually quite conflicted by their own moral stance on individual freedom and Father’s rule. The characters of Mother and Brother don’t necessarily disagree with the extremist views of Father, especially for Brother, as this is the only life he has really known.
The standout, however, is Van Dien as Father. This commanding and intimidating performance is some of his best work. Van Dien fully loses himself as this twisted individual who genuinely believes everything he is doing comes from a place of love and care for his family, and not from a place of evil and power. His physicality broods over the other characters, with his gruff, bearded, flannel-wearing look tying the bow on his bellowing, deep voice that immediately makes a room silent. The Father is a terrifying character, and Van Dien is pitch-perfect casting in the role.
Daughter is a strong debut from Corey Deshon, with an opening hook that is the blueprint on how to start a movie! The grungy, gritty feeling of 1970s horror is matched with an engaging psychological thriller premise. While at times the pacing can move up and down, and the familiarities of this previously played out premise can break the tension itself, it’s the unique visual style and a powerhouse performance from Casper Van Dien that will have you gripping your seat from start to end.
Daughter is available on various VOD formats in Australia from February 22.
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