Over a year removed from its premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Recommended) finally opens this week in select theaters nationwide. Perplexingly, it screens in just one theater in the Chicagoland area, and you’ll have to make the hike to South Barrington (!) to see it. Given its pedigree - a notable festival debut featuring familiar faces and distributed by America’s preeminent indie label, A24 - this distribution strategy seems especially puzzling. Though for those who had the opportunity to check out the film during its festival run, the question of its very limited release is simple. Too harrowing for mainstream audiences, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is proudly and profoundly un-commercial in what’s a thesis study on the pangs of loneliness and its brutally violent repercussions.
Divided into three intersecting parts, Perkins follows three young women over the course of a chilly February. The film is centered on an all-girls boarding school, opening on Kat (Kiernan Shipka) as she’s jostled out of a nightmare that sees the death of her parents. Her nightmare enters her waking life as her parents have not arrived to pick her up for winter break. Amidst an exodus of students, Kat is left with Rose (Lucy Boynton), herself having manufactured a story to keep her on school grounds for a bit longer – several days late, she fears she may be pregnant and needs to talk with her boyfriend about it. Tasked by the school’s headmaster to look after Kat, Rose shrugs off the request, leaving the young and traumatized girl to her own devices. Meanwhile, a separate narrative involving Joan (Emma Roberts) takes place, finding her picked up at a bus terminal by a friendly, older couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly). They travel the open road, where the chilly dread of accepting help from a stranger steering its narrative down an unexpected path.
While there are numerous films of its genre that The Blackcoat’s Daughter makes explicit reference to – from 3 Women to The Exorcist to Suspiria – the one film that rattled in my consciousness during its runtime was Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. Both films broadly contend with anomie, loneliness, and rejection, particularly in how they relate to familial abandonment. Both see characters taking refuge in a persuasive demon, whether literal or spiritual. And both are immaculately composed, with Daughter’s cinematographer Julie Kirkwood possessing an acute visual eye for both indoor and outdoor scenery that’s reminiscent of Greg Fraser’s somber work in Foxcatcher. The scrutiny in every composition threatens to squeeze the life out of everything that moves within the frame, and in both films’ cases, this component is of elemental importance in producing a feeling of unceasing dread and anxiety.
But beyond its compositional breadth, what Perkins conveys in The Blackcoat’s Daughter lends itself a more feminine persuasion, one that addresses a set of impossible social responsibilities exclusive to women. Whether it’s a young girl confronting social rejection, the possibility of dealing with a pregnancy of her own, or questioning the intentions of an older man’s hospitality, these issues are uniquely characterized by its feminist lens. What comes out of this is an unsettling vision, one where ultraviolent cruelty doesn’t seem out of character so much as it seems inevitable.