In 2018, Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie co-starred in the wilderness drama “Leave No Trace,” depicting a father teaching his daughter to live off the grid, far from the reaches of civilization. Watching the new thriller “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” I couldn’t help but draw parallels, although this story evoked memories of the 1962 suspenseful drama “Cape Fear” and its 1991 Martin Scorsese-directed remake, perhaps due to its remote setting and a key character who returns, striking terror into an unsuspecting family.
Jacob (portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn) is notorious as the enigmatic Marsh King. He abducts a young woman named Beth (played by Caren Pistorius) and whisks her away to the isolated marshlands of Michigan, where he subjects her to torment and becomes the father of their daughter, Helena (portrayed by Brooklynn Prince). For the next 12 years, Helena knows no other life, unaware of her family’s circumstances, resenting her traumatized mother, and looking up to her father, who imparts survival skills in the desolate wilderness.
Eventually, Jacob is apprehended, and mother and daughter reintegrate into society. Years later, we meet an older Helena (Daisy Ridley), who, despite learning the truth about her dangerous father, continues to be haunted by him, even as she enjoys a happy marriage with Stephen (played by Garrett Hedlund) and raises her own daughter, both oblivious to her hidden past as the daughter of the infamous Marsh King. When news spreads that Jacob has escaped from prison after 20 years and may be returning to find Helena, sheer terror ensues, secrets unravel, and Helena’s unyielding determination and abilities are put to the test.
Director Neil Burger (known for “Divergent,” “Limitless,” and “The Upside”) skillfully presses all the right buttons, expertly heightening the suspense and keeping us on edge. Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith’s effective adaptation of Karen Dionne’s bestselling novel contributes significantly to the tension. The atmospheric setting and the seclusion of the location are well-suited, both for the film’s opening scenes and its climactic act. Young Brooklynn Prince and Daisy Ridley both deliver outstanding performances in their shared portrayal of Helena, convincing us of her unique abilities under the tutelage of a father who exerts a distinct influence on her at different stages of her life. Ridley excels in her rugged role, complemented by Mendelsohn’s portrayal of Jacob, which avoids excessive theatrics, making him even more fearsome. The ever-reliable Gil Birmingham also shines among the cast, playing a man who becomes a significant part of Helena’s life after her father’s imprisonment.
“The Marsh King’s Daughter” doesn’t aspire to be more than an effective thriller, but it accomplishes its objectives with the help of an exceptional cast that brings the story to life and a filmmaker who skillfully navigates it all with style.