“I look for Him in the unlikely things that happen”
It maybe but a dream, yet it feels so real. Fifteen-year old Katherine (Kiernan Shipka), readying for a week’s vacation from her Jesuit boarding school, experiences one sparking a sense of foreboding. Parents will be arriving on Thursday to watch the children’s talent show before everyone—students, nuns, priests, and the headmaster himself—leaves for home. Kat has been preparing a vocal performance at the piano for this year’s engagement, but the dream has distracted her enough to grow distant and odd. It was in fact a nightmare wherein her father lead her outside to a snow bank, the family car seen crushed beyond repair. So when the morning comes and her parents don’t arrive, she can’t help but believe her vision wasn’t imaginary. She’s now completely alone.
This is the opening of Oz Perkins‘ (son of Anthony Perkins) slow burning directorial debut The Blackcoat’s Daughter. He instills its methodical pacing and atmospheric quietness from the first frame, the disorienting cuts between life, dream, and characters a meticulously orchestrated system of purposeful vantage points, hidden details, and surprising revelations. Perkins asks us to pay strict attention to everything from a wry smile given by Kat while looking off into an empty corner to the ecstatic reaction of Rose (Lucy Boynton), seated on a toilet, that replaces her fears of potentially being pregnant. He isn’t, however, imploring us to do the heavy lifting as much as letting us know how there is always more than meets the eye if only we give him a bit more time.
As it is, we’re not even sure Kat is our main focus despite her ushering us into this world. We follow her only so far before Rose takes over with superimposed text spelling out her name. Is she therefore our lead? She is also left at the school under the care of two nuns with Kat after all, but her parents aren’t missing. Rose lied to them in order to earn some alone time with the would-be father of her unborn child. Her exile is therefore by choice, her attitude towards Kat less than amiable due to personal stress and enough of an age difference to possess an air of superiority. She’s the one who witnesses Kat’s peculiarities: catching her in the basement and being left feeling threatened.
But we don’t shift back to Kat to see her name flash onscreen, revealing the whole as a two-hander ratcheting up its claustrophobic suspense. No, it’s Joan’s (Emma Roberts) name that appears instead. Anxious and out of sorts, she exits a train to clean up in the public restroom—a hospital bracelet on her wrist. We see flashes of violence, each leaving a sharp jolt of pain and sorrow. Was she abused? Was she the abuser? We don’t yet know. But a stranger named Bill (James Remar) asks himself the same questions, looking upon her on the cold station bench with charitable pity. He and his wife Linda (Lauren Holly) are driving towards her destination so they offer a ride. How does she fit in? The mystery mounts.
All this happens in the first twenty to thirty minutes so it can feel daunting if you aren’t willing to soak it in like a sponge. Time becomes fractured in ways you can’t quite guess yet and Kat’s demeanor (her name finally being highlighted third) grows increasingly strange and malicious. Actions earn skepticism and words discomfort, this youthful, supposedly faith-driven girl losing her grip as an anger-fueled indifference and flippant dissolution of respect makes us wonder when the inevitable blow of violence will occur. Will she be the one to perform it or has her devolution into depression been a red herring for Rose to snap? Perhaps Joan is coming for them both, a woman with unfinished business. Or maybe rumors of nuns worshipping the Devil are true.
It was interesting to learn through Googling that some believe Jesuits are secret followers of Satan, so Rose’s story about the nuns proves more pointed than a scare tactic to keep Kat quiet. There’s obviously “evil” in play, but we’re uncertain if it’s something to be made tangible or simply a metaphor for Kat’s grief. She’s not herself, but the other two girls aren’t either (as far as we know). Rose is lost to her circumstances, her smile a show for best friend Lizzy (Emma Holzer) that quickly disappears. Both she and Kat are left to face rough emotional journeys alone inside this empty school. And Joan is either worried about self-defense or out for blood with the way she studies a restaurant steak knife in police presence.
Elaborating would give away Perkins’ game—a mistake. Everyone should go into The Blackcoat’s Daughter as cold as possible, so kudos to A24 for cutting a trailer that uses spoilery dialogue by necessity but does so abstractly out of context. The film is about atmosphere much like the studio’s The Witch. Its pacing is similar too despite its more sprawling narrative forks bringing three leads together through carefully considered information dispersal. And while we expect the major reveal, it’s less a twist than another layered truth to better augment Perkins’ goals. He’s not looking to tell a story about Satan or death or even horror. Beneath everything his movie is about the power of loneliness and humanity’s desire to do whatever it takes to combat it.
We don’t therefore pity the victims as much as we do their assailant, lost to her painful abyss. These three girls are on their own in a way that renders it impossible to truly open up and exist outside their own minds. They may have been able to help each other through their respective torment rather than selfishly construct walls to attempt accomplishing their goals alone. Fear drives them to the edge of a chasm ready to swallow them whole. Relief comes to one, allowing her to see the danger lurking. The others are too far-gone to be saved. As melancholic as the title song by Perkins’ brother Elvis, the result proves a contemplative study of existential futility. Despair isn’t in one’s heinous acts, but the aftermath showing nothing changed.