The basic premise of the movie Daughter is a familiar one; a woman is held captive by a dangerous man until she can make her daring escape. It’s an unfortunately timeless tale rooted in both reality and fiction, and no matter how much mileage it gains, people take notice, wanting to know how everything turns out. Yet despite its well-worn pitch, Corey Deshon’s debut feels fresh, due in large part to its visual presentation, textured characters and stimulating story. The promising director breathes much-needed new life into an often tropey subgenre of horror.
Daughter is broken into chapter points, with the first one introducing the movie’s hapless protagonist. After the previous “Daughter” (Megan Le) is snuffed out during a failed attempt to flee her captor, Casper Van Dien’s character promptly brings home a replacement. This other young woman (Vivien Ngô) is then chained up in the garage until she’s ready to join her new “family.” Once she and the audience both get their bearings, it becomes clear this has happened before. And it could very well happen again, based on a scene where the family ceremonially burns the last Daughter’s photo at an altar.
A cult vibe is apparent from the beginning. Aside from the appointed names for everyone — those simple identifiers being Father, Mother, Daughter/Sister and Son/Brother — everyone wears brown and sepia-colored “uniforms” that match parts of the home’s décor. The shared earth tones would imply Father’s family are as much fixtures as the shelves and furnishings. In addition, Father homeschools his children, ensuring he has utmost control of not only their time and bodies, but also their minds. The indoctrination has been successful with Son (Ian Alexander), but it hasn’t quite taken with Mother (Elyse Dinh), and the new Daughter is just as resistant as the last one, if not more so.
Another of these forced-family movies might insist that loud and shocking is the best way to instill the prisoners’ dread in the viewers. However, Daughter rarely raises its voice or inflicts bodily harm. This movie is an almost unremitting example of how someone saying unambiguous statements in a mild tone of voice — ”you’ll be safe as long as you are safe” and “nobody’s gonna touch you, not in a sexual way” come to mind — is as effective as a yelled threat or physical disciplining. Van Dien, in what is easily his most terrifying and convincing role to date, would rather use his unnervingly calm yet strict authority to beat his captives into submission than his fists. The prospect of violence always keeps the audience on their toes, and the suggestion of unseen violations is also present.
Van Dien is persuasive as the movie’s villainous patriarch. He never becomes over-the-top or cartoonish, even when he has ample opportunity to do so. Father has as much depth as the other family members, and even as everything starts to fall apart, there’s still a small shred of humanity inside of him, clawing its way to the surface at the end. It’s confusing to watch Father become prone to the same kind of emotion he’s filtered out of his makeshift children and wife. Meanwhile, it’s easy to become attached to Vivien Ngô as her Daughter character quietly challenges Father, looks out for her situational brother, and bides her time until she can exit this nightmare. Ian Alexander’s young age never affects his ardent performance as the brainwashed Son who’s led to believe the air outside is toxic. As for the matriarch, Elyse Dinh expertly plays two roles here, one more complex than the other.
While Daughter was shot in 2019, the last few years have prepared viewers so they can better relate to a family locking itself inside as a sickness lurks outside. And with Father standing in for any given despot, it’s not hard to connect with the movie’s overall theme of oppression. Deshon is right to show how differently people react in such trying times; a few fight back, some endure, and others are devoured without their realizing it. As frustrating as they are to watch, these disparate responses are insightfully written and credibly performed.
Daughter doesn’t look like most indies coming out these days. Filmmakers today experiment with unorthodox aspect ratios, but Deshon’s movie is one of the more successful attempts, with its 1.66:1 framing reflecting the penetrating sensation of feeling trapped. Shooting on 16mm film hugely increases the movie’s aesthetic value and gives it more of a dated appearance to better match an older period setting. Apart from those notable technical pluses is a talented cast of actors, three of whom are of Southeast Asian descent.
Crime horror, fictional or inspired, has a habit of putting too much emphasis on the villain while overlooking the victims. Here the injured party is placed front and center, and they’re awarded more consideration than the perpetrator. As a result of this and other encouraging attributes, Daughter is admirably unconventional. It tells a claustrophobic story about abuse passed off as family values, the denial of freedom, and wanton exploitation, all without resorting to the graphic methods of past movies. The concept may come across as too simple, but the execution is nothing short of complex and perceptive.