The horror genre can work on many different levels and have extraordinarily diverse aims, but somehow, more often than not, its output gets lumped in as gross-out, lowest-common-denominator fodder by the misinformed and narrow-minded. Darkness and terror and, yes, sometimes blood and violence can have deeper purposes, the mere conduit in which to convey nothing less than the human conditionour fears, our struggles, our longings, and our hopes for a new dawn. When done right, horror can hit an otherwise untouched sweet spot, providing a level of catharsis and insight no other genre can. "The Blackcoat's Daughter" gets it right and then some. This is an unwaveringly profound debut feature from writer-director Osgood Perkins (son of the late, great Anthony Perkins), a motion picture so intensely layered, so fastidiously detailed, so remarkably constructed, so suggestively atmospheric, and so emotionally resonant it earns its place as a modern work of art.
Because every scenenay, every momentis a crucial puzzle piece within the phantasmal world it depicts, one should know very little beforehand. Washing over the viewer like a grave, inalterable premonition, the picture gradually introduces its three protagonists. It's February 12 at the snow-blanketed Bramford School, a New England prep academy on the eve of winter vacation. As the rest of the students and staff clear out, two peers are left behind to await their parents' pick-up: freshman Kat (Kiernan Shipka), who cannot shake the unthinkable dream she had the night before, and senior Rose (Lucy Boynton), believing she is pregnant and feigning illness so she can sneak off to break the news to her boyfriend. As strange happenings portend something inexorable and wicked, their paths edge ever closer to that of Joan (Emma Roberts), a mysterious young hitchhiker heading toward Bramford's neighboring town of Portsmith.
About a feeling as much as it is about what happens, "The Blackcoat's Daughter" works on so many levels it's impossible to keep count. To immediately brush the experience off and not think about it in the hours and days after is to overlook the breadth of its chilling, heartbreaking implications. As an unsettling aura of doom pervades the proceedings, the film's insidious yet empathetic vision crystallizes the longer one gazes. Here is a penetrating tale about loss and bereavement, about the desperate search for faith and the lengths people may go to not feel alone. It is also, ultimately, about shame and regret, about wishing to take back that which cannot be changed. All of this and more can be seen in the faces of its well-drawn characters, punctuated by its blisteringly cold rural locales and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood's (2012's "Hello I Must Be Going
") indelibly forlorn lensing. The original score by Elvis Perkins is eerily lonesome, almost otherworldly, an instrumental maelstrom both discordant and symphonic. The same can be said of the unforgettable bookending song from which the film gets its provocative name, a nursery rhyme seemingly written and composed in Hell.
Kiernan Shipka (TV's "Mad Men") is nothing short of a wunderkind as Kat, her performance as haunting as it is haunted. Watching her in this uniquely demanding role is to see an extraordinary young talent coming into her own. As Rose, Lucy Boynton (2016's "Sing Street
") continues to thoroughly impress, exhibiting a depth and internal tug-of-war without having to say anything at all. A single shot where she poses for a school photograph, her bright, smiling face immediately falling following the click of the camera, is deceptively simple, yet endlessly fascinating. Amazing, how an actor can give a character a world of conflict and history with simply a look. Emma Roberts (2016's "Nerve
" and TV's "Scream Queens") is tremendously effective as Joan, her evasiveness a mask for anguished, forbidding intentions. A late scene, holding on her as she is confronted by the weight of the world, is devastating. In a cast where even the smallest parts make an impression, James Remar (2014's "Horns
") and Lauren Holly (2000's "What Women Want
") provide excellent support as married couple Bill and Linda, unknowingly racing toward their own destinies.
From the most minor of background set decoration to subtle yet meticulously devised visual and verbal cues, nothing occurs by accident in "The Blackcoat's Daughter." It is all a part of Osgood Perkins' master design. If one guesses a certain key revelation before it arrivesa revelation so elegantly imparted it requires no forced exposition or clunky explanationit is a testament to the strength of the material that it makes no difference, and may even prove beneficial to the viewer's understanding of what Perkins is driving at. Meanwhile, the picture's bleakly mesmerizing mise en scène
holds sway, complementing its thematic complexity. The way Kat stands at the end of an empty road, a single tear falling as she heads inside to perform at a recital for the two people she most wants there and are not. The way a malevolent figure is first glimpsed in reflective tiles, turning an already imposing sight into one even more nightmarish. The way one character touches the cold metal of a derelict furnace, and finally realizes nothing will ever be the same again. "The Blackcoat's Daughter" is a cloven-hooved tragedy of grim, classy, altogether shattering consequence, landing, finally, like a knife piercing the heart.