By Jeremy Carr.
It’s a pressure cooker scenario executed by debuting writer-director Corey Deshon with an acute tonal balance, and Vivien Ngô’s performance, in the title role, is the obvious catalyst for Daughter’s swift narrative momentum.”
A young woman flees through a desolate landscape, pursued by two individuals. They’re first in a truck, barreling down on her at full speed, then they close in on foot. Wearing light brown work suits, they breathe heavily under ominous gas masks. Catching up to their target, they proceed to beat her to death. The film that follows, according to an opening on-screen statement, is based “on more fact than fiction.” How much of that is indeed true is unclear, and will remain so, but what is sure is that with this jarring, disquieting prologue, with its vast and foreboding vistas, the mysterious, curiously cautious attire, and the sudden, vicious act of violence, writer-director Corey Deshon has created an effective foundational hook for his debut feature, 2022’s Daughter.
Without any indication of what came after this initial scene, we are introduced to Casper Van Dien’s Father, who has kidnapped another woman, played by Vivien Ngô. He explains the situation, which basically amounts to demanding his captive play the part of his daughter, for the benefit of his son, who needs a sister. Everything, Father says, is for the boy, for his protection and pacification. Father establishes the necessary behavior required by Daughter and promises a smooth transition, perhaps general contentment, and ultimately, in a few years’ time, freedom. But this, of course, supposes she follows the rules. Throughout this primer, Father is unnervingly keen, calm, and, at first, even kind. It’s not just Father and son, though; there is also Mother (Elyse Dinh), who, at least on the surface, sustains Father’s criminal assembly with affirming complicity.
As proclaimed by Father, the air outside their home/prison is toxic, causing people to behave in vaguely inappropriate ways. Brother (Ian Alexander) is particularly susceptible to this contamination and for his own good must be confined to the house. Only he, Father, is allowed to leave for supplies and food. Doors are otherwise locked, windows are covered, and for the time being, Daughter is secluded and chained at the leg. There are marginal scenes of a deceptively tranquil domestic arrangement with Father, Brother, and Mother, and before long, Daughter is also integrated into the makeshift family. These early vignettes are slow and restrained, as Deshon disperses proper amounts of discreet trepidation, advancing the strange role play and the ambiguous suggestion of what exists in the diseased and dangerous “out there.” It’s tense and awkward; a jovial veneer is precariously promoted by Father’s dominate guidelines for the well-being of all while an unspoken and undeniable dread hangs over every moment. Daughter, however, sees past the assertions of supposed sickness, be they literal or metaphysical, and is subtly skeptical of the confines that limit the movement of she, Brother, and Mother. Most notably, the sweeping restrictions also limit the boy’s knowledge of what is really happening, assuming, that is, it’s not exactly as Father posits.
The easiest thing would be to go along and get along, but Daughter is defiant, cleverly so, prodding Father with questions and insinuations and providing the essential opposition of the picture. Nevertheless, the hierarchy of power is firm, emphasized by Deshon’s typically rigid compositions and a lack of camera movement, which both serve to keep everyone in their place. The authoritative strain is further pressurized by the entrapment of a home sheathed in uniform blandness, with plastic wrapped windows and sparse decoration, all giving little to no sign of a specific time period or geographic location and all adding to the inherent claustrophobia of a film largely restricted to one location.
Dinh, as Mother, is quietly compelling and, as eventually disclosed, lives in a parallel fear to that of Daughter, but she is living all the same. Secretly speaking to Daughter, softly and in Vietnamese, which Father doesn’t understand and, not surprisingly, doesn’t approve of, there is the implication of a potential alliance. But Mother has been in this situation for quite a while, and according to her, such longevity is due to her willingness to acquiesce to Father’s unorthodox demands. Daughter would best do the same. Alexander is also quite good as Brother, who doesn’t seem to question the comings and goings of his surrogate sisters, though he does express evident joy at the arrival of this latest sibling and it’s clear he abhors what happens should she not fall in line (he was unwillingly with Father for the film’s opening murder). Alexander embodies a bizarre boy with an unsettling naïveté, a simplistic understanding of his eccentric domain, and essentially no knowledge of the outside world, save for what Father avows. He busies himself with board games, painting, and lessons derived from Father’s apocalyptic doctrine. As he and Daughter grow closer and Ngô expertly enacts indirect and sometimes rather explicit means of deceit, she plants seeds of doubt and attempts to form a fruitful kinship, just as she does, hazardously so, with Mother.
Why and how this all began and what comes next after Daughter’s teasing final scene remains mischievously uncertain.”
It’s a pressure cooker scenario deliberately executed by Deshon with an acute tonal balance, and Ngô’s performance is the obvious catalyst for Daughter’s swift narrative momentum, the fate of all involved hinging on her devious, at times ingenious maneuverings as she feigns curiosity but mostly strives to ruffle Father’s feathers. But it’s Van Dien who is the most surprising star of Daughter, which is broken up into seven chapters of varying length, their individual titles providing evasive hints of what’s to come. He is measured, menacing, and peaceable, prone to cryptic pronouncements and philosophizing, pleased when the others behave according to plan, lashing out when they don’t, and always brewing the searing potential for violence. His oppressive manner is at constant odds with his paternal devotion and genuine consideration for his son, forsaking the liberties of everyone else.
But why? Why are any of them in this position? There are hints of the boy’s medical condition and Father states Brother’s blood will “save the world,” but much else—Father’s motives, the justification for his actions, the probability of truth in his words—is left unsettled until the very end of the film. Part of Daughter’s cunning is its refusal to outwardly confirm or deny Father’s declarations; for the longest time, there is no evidence to the contrary of what he decrees in his effusive scripture. Daughter speeds up in a torrent of significant dramatic revelations, an incongruous though nonetheless amusing musical number, an effectively shocking outburst, and a satisfyingly open-ended conclusion. Why and how this all began and what comes next after Daughter’s teasing final scene remains mischievously uncertain, but it’s to the credit of Deshon and the minimal but successful cast that the film, for its relatively brief running, keeps tensions high and speculation rampant.
Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (December 2021).