Daughter first published by SciFiNow
“I want you to understand something. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want any harm to come to you at all – but if it comes to it, you will be harmed.”
The speaker is Father (Casper Van Dien, in a career-best performance), and his immediate audience (Vivien Ngô), whose real name we will not learn until much later but whom Father will call Daughter, is certainly worried about being harmed, not least because she has woken up chained to the floor of a garage with a sack over her head, with no idea who her captor is or what he wants. “We’re not violent people,” Father will tell Daughter, but we know, as she at least suspects, that his words are untrue, for in the prologue to Daughter we saw Father and his young son (Ian Alexander), both dressed in gas masks, chasing another woman (Megan Le) in hill lands where Father then bludgeoned her to death with a hammer. That prologue represents the last time, until the very end of the film, that events take place outside the claustrophobic confines of Father’s house – a place of entrapment that also offers a grotesque parody of family. For now Father and Mother (Elyse Dinh) have found a new sister for their son – and if Daughter is to avoid the fate of her predecessor, she must comply with Father’s strict rules and follow his many unhinged sermons.
Text near the beginning of Daughter states: “The following is based more on fact than fiction.” While disclaimers like this, though typically not worded quite so equivocally, are something of a mainstay in a genre whose devotees know to take them with a pinch of salt, they come with a particular resonance in this feature debut from writer/director Corey Deshon, where stories are endlessly told, appropriated or invented out of thin air to reflect and deflect, allegorise and elude, an obvious truth that nobody is permitted openly to discuss (although there are hushed whisperings about it in Vietnamese). And as this strange clan is co-opted, gaslit and terrorised into accepting the mythomaniac Father’s alternative reality – and absolute authority – the house becomes a microcosm of infernal patriarchy, where all that matters is the transfer of tradition from father to son, and the captive women who serve this process are all at once alien (literally speaking another language), expendable and readily replaceable. No coincidence, then, that Deshon previously wrote the screenplay for Orson Oblowitz’s Hell Is Where The Home Is (2018), whose title might equally have been used to describe this particular domestic dead end.
There are different levels of truth on which Daughter (whose very title is both an inevitable truth, but also an obvious fiction, in denoting its heroine’s status) is based. First there are its pre-existing cinematic models: for like the Father and his stories, Deshon “takes what’s already there and changes it”, borrowing the patriarch’s negative mythologisation of the outside world from Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), the prison-house of sexual politics from Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) or the perverse family rituals transmitted in Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are (2013, and itself already a reimagining). Yet this is also, like Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), a fiction composited from all too familiarity realities. For in its divisions between different races and different sexes, between blind faith, feigned belief and a more sceptical secularism, between a self-constructed bubble and the more complicated world beyond, one can detect many of the polarities that define America’s current culture wars.
Here everyone is in bondage to Father – and his narrow universe, beautifully captured on 16mm in an aspect ratio (1.66:1) that accentuates the pervasive sense of suffocation, is also his curious, confused son’s inheritance. The son is restricted to seeing things only through his father’s eyes, and, as a keen study ever eager to please, has fully assimilated all his father’s lessons even as he discerns some of their internal contradictions. As a result, the son is himself a contradictory character – and while there may be within him a potential for breaking free of this closed system, the film maintains a careful ambiguity over whether he has finally rebelled against his father’s grim legacy, or truly remains his father’s son and successor to the very end. Meanwhile Mother and Daughter, both utterly disempowered and in thrall to Father’s controlling will, must negotiate the shifting degree of their complicity in a regime that leaves them utterly disempowered. The result is a bleak snapshot of the social and cultural structures that keep everyone in their (wrongful) place, while punishing any sign of resistance to what is deemed ‘safe’ but in fact endangers all but exploitative, abusive Daddy.
strap: Corey Deshon’s feature debut is a claustrophobic kidnapping thriller set in an abstract, allegorical prison-house of patriarchy