On memory and consciousness, Mad Men's greatest export, and abandonment as the ultimate uncomfortable silence
The Blackcoat's Daughter A24
Director: Oz Perkins
Screenplay: Oz Perkins
Starring: Kiernan Shipka, Emma Roberts, Lucy Boynton, James Remar and Lauren Holly
Rated R / 1 hour, 33 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
There comes a curious pause, and it's our natural inclination to fill it. With something. We reaffirm what was last said, we mumble, we tap our fingers, we change the subject, we cough or clear our throat even if we don't need to.
A movie affords us no such opportunity to fill that space - except maybe for the rudest of viewers, and hopefully the rudest of viewers aren't watching The Blackcoat's Daughter. Oz Perkins' outstanding, late-arriving feature debut - his sophomore feature, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, was released last year - has no shortage of those pauses, each pregnant and uncomfortable. But Perkins idles with purpose, compelling our thoughts to linger on the expression on a face, or the implications of a remark, or to consider what a character might be thinking. It's a difficult thing to visually communicate the act of thought or contemplation - especially without the common accompaniment of internal monologue - but this film and its three principal actresses pull it off. In the movie's persistent trance-like mood, it remains cagey about what's really going on, but not just for the sake of being withholding; who these young women - in particular Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Joan (Emma Roberts) - truly are, what their state of mind is, and what they may or may not be possessed by or preoccupied with are open questions. Even they aren't always sure of the answers. Throughout the film, it's rare for anyone to be on the same wavelength as anyone else - but perhaps even more of a struggle for them to be on the wavelength they expect to be, or used to be, or longingly yearn to be.
The structure elegantly reflects that foreboding sense of uncertainty, bouncing between two disconnected narratives of dubious affiliation - one about two young women, Kat and Rose (Sing Street's Lucy Boynton), spending a couple of nights alone in their boarding school while everyone else is away on break; and the other about Joan, all alone and recently departed from an institution of some kind, reluctantly hitching a ride with a kind but strange middle-aged couple. What pervades in both sections is a disorienting sense of consciousness, as if these characters are floating in and out of temperaments, memories, states of mind. The film operates as a sort of feedback loop, with the two stories and their two leads connected by their abandonment, by what is lost and what is being sought, by what they remember and what they forget. One moment will activate the consciousness of another, like the sense memory of a pungent smell. Sulfur, maybe.
Perkins has a way of crystallizing specific moments in time and using those moments to communicate across narrative and temporal distance. We are introduced to Rose - whose beauty is not only purposefully memorable in its own right but implicitly places her in a certain social category at the school - on picture day, watch her enter the room serious-faced, glide left to right across the screen in liquid slo-mo, sit down, straighten her sweater, and slowly burst into a professional smile. The photograph itself is important, but its power lies in the degree to which we remember it. It doesn't register as a single frame that simply identifies a person; it sinks in because it's associated with that entire sequence of moments. We remember the glide, the look on her face, the music that pushed her across the room. We don't see a snapshot, but an entire scene, evoking a thousand small details about this character, at that moment in her life. That, more or less, is how Blackcoat operates. Elliptical moments that take full and profound shape in the subconscious.
All throughout, we look back, or beyond, or somewhere within these characters. One presence possesses another, evokes another, co-opts another. There are conversations in which it seems one is speaking not to the other person in the room, but to something inside her - or something about her, or something they want her to be. "You remind me of someone..." In other moments, characters seem to act unconsciously. Smile and zone out without realizing it. Awaken from a sort of mild trance. Sleepwalk.
That volatile sense of equilibrium is magnified by Perkins' filmmaking choices - to strange, unnervingly strong effect. In a sense, he abandons his characters. The loneliness that is the film's driving emotional undercurrent is not just a result of the settings, though that's certainly relevant - two young women alone at a cavernous boarding school, in the dark and cold; another young woman alone at a bus stop, seemingly unattached to anything or anyone, whose loneliness and isolation grow into a form of personal spiritual terror. But beyond that, the film's brazen subduing of extraneous noise (at least from natural sources) and the aforementioned heavy pauses - which expand the emotional distance between characters - create a pervasive feeling of stillness that's almost overbearing. Imagine walking somewhere, late, when night is at or near its darkest, trudging along without anyone else within shouting distance. An open field, a sleepy neighborhood, a deserted area of town. At least when you're walking, you've got the constant sound of your feet on the dirt or gravel to keep your senses occupied. You hear the breeze whistle by your ear, your jacket rustle against your sides, your keys jangle. But then you stop, and don't make a move, and suddenly your only accompaniment is empty silence, and it's suddenly so much more alarming. In that absence, your imagination finds ways to fill the void.
The Blackcoat's Daughter has a similar effect. Perkins surrounds Kat and Rose and Joan in still silence, without even the standard background ambience we're accustomed to. Even during a scene in a restaurant, he keeps the noise to a minimum - the faint clinking of silverware and a few quiet voices, but no overhead music on the restaurant speakers, no intrusions by a boisterous waitress or children talking in the next booth. Like the rest of the film, there's very little movement, physically or otherwise; Perkins creates an aloneness, almost a hopelessness. The sound design and the score - by the director's brother Elvis Perkins - are the film's real sonic intrusions, scratching and echoing off the walls of the characters' psyches.
But the deliberate lack of external distractions, the deliberate isolation - be it from noise, from light, from family, or other people in general - exemplifies the feeling of abandonment that is the film's active emotional force. While nearly everyone else's parents have come to pick them up for the break, Kat's are nowhere to be found. She insists they're dead, a claim Rose rejects as a paranoid overreaction. But she's been abandoned all the same, though not exactly in the way we might assume.
Everyone in the film does fine work, but in particular I cannot say enough about Shipka's performance, which will surely rank with 2017's best even by year's end. The character's shifting, uneasy sense of self requires a lot of the actress, but she's more than up to the task; her gentle sincerity in one scene feels as organic as her cold, manic ferocity the next. Perkins shows masterful control in his use of actors, particularly the circumstantial suggestibility of what they are capable of. There are moments in which we infer something sinister simply because of the offbeat rhythms of his shots, the oppressive quiet of his pauses, or the eerie qualities of a specific performance. He's seemingly uninterested in paying those ambiguities off in the traditional way - in building our fears or suspicions and then letting the action provide the answers. The film ingeniously "spoils" its most violent plot developments (two of them) ahead of time, giving them a broader and more disturbing context before we inevitably see them play out in more detail. The meaning behind the actions, and their aftermath, are of more relevance here than the linear execution of the events themselves.
It is not just the prevailing sadness that gives The Blackcoat's Daughter its potency, but the unusual source of that sadness, of that abandonment. And the lengths one might go to extinguish it, to recover what's been lost. To not be alone anymore.