Jan. 5th, 2017

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So...I finally saw The Blackcoat's Daughter, otherwise known as February, aka Oz Perkins's first film--a possession story told backwards and sidelong, in hindsight, from the outside in. I had to do it online, streaming it from a site, which annoys me; I'd like to vote with my wallet as much as I can in these matters, and the fact that TBD has been caught up in some sort of release date hell ever since it did the festival circuit is hardly Perkins's fault--it's entirely possible it isn't actually anybody's fault, because sometimes that's just the way it goes. Yes, we CALL corporations "individuals" under the law; that doesn't mean all of them are sociopaths, necessarily. Here endeth the I Used To Be In This Industry (Sort Of) lesson.

At any rate. The real reason I'd have loved to see TBD by slightly less nefarious means is that my laptop screen is comparatively tiny and the film's chiaroscuro colour-scheme renders extraordinarily badly when reduced to a rectangle. Which actually counts, for once...I get that Perkins made the choice to render his main character's world mostly in shades of black, broken up with the very occasional contrast of dirty grey or bonemeal off-white (the snows of February, usually static, polluted, a mucky trod-through mess) versus a sudden here-and-there splash of red. And even in those cases, the red's also presented as submerged in shadow, clotted and indistinct, like he's riffing off of Thomas Harris (Have you ever seen blood in the moonlight, Will? It appears quite black.). This might be his way of trying to get across just how completely his protagonist's world-view has been altered, as though there's a filter always set across her eyes, rendering the familiar sinister. It's possible that's the way she wants to see things, at least, even if she doesn't.

Much like I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, (which I also have to talk about, I know, I get that), TBD is told out of temporal sequence and with a remarkably slippy-slidey approach to who the most important person onscreen is at any given time. Eventually, we figure out that we may be watching the same person at two distinct points in her life, under two different names. In the first section of the film she is an obstacle, a pariah, a difficulty for those around her, a recent transfer student to a religiously-oriented boarding school in the middle of nowhere, mainly ignored unless she's doing things which slowly begin to turn her into a potential danger.

The heroine of that section thus becomes someone else entirely--Rose (Lucy Boynton), a well-established fellow student, older and glamorous, who spends most of her time thinking that she's allowed herself to get pregnant by her townie boyfriend. She stays behind deliberately over the February break, hoping to fix this situation, and ends up having to room with pale, odd Kat (Kiernan Shipka), whose parents promise to pick her up and simply don't. All Rose knows about Kat is that she plays the piano, performing a song obviously written by Elvis Perkins at the school's talent showcase the same day everybody else leaves; all she puts herself out to tell Kat is a spooky rumour that the two nun-like sisters left behind to look after them both were once discovered down in the furnace room, worshipping Satan. It's possible that this might give Kat ideas, but considering she already seems to have received a precognitive dream about her parents fate in the form of a tall, black-coated man showing her a wrecked car parked in the school's lot, maybe not. Maybe it's more something she takes as a sign, a clue that what she believes might be happening really is.

Like Kat, Joan (Emma Roberts) is first discovered wandering through a cold, unwelcoming world. Recently released from a mental hospital, she seems to own little more than an equally dark coat, a small bag and a bottle of pills she never takes. She is making her way back towards the school, very slowly, first on foot and then with the help of a couple who pick her up en route, travelling the same path towards the same anniversary, albeit for different reasons. Because it's the 21st century, we are at first cued to expect that affable, apparently devout Bill (James Remar) and his wife Linda (Lauren Holly), who barely speaks or acknowledges Joan's presence, are a prospective serial killer/sex abuser and his enabler. But this soon turns out not to be true--this girl he's decided to do good deeds for because she reminds him of a lost daughter is, quite possibly, the single worst person he could have chosen for that particular role. But neither of them are going to get what they want out of their interaction, anyhow.

In both the past and the present, a palpable sense of danger builds steadily throughout, resonating in Rose's dreams and visions, in Kat's weird behaviours, in Joan's driving hunger to reunite with something forcibly long-separated from her. What's that old line: Madness is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results? It quickly becomes clear that Joan wants to believe she can recapture what she's lost by retracing her own steps and visiting the same stations on her pilgrimage, making the same obeisances and performing the same sacrifices...but she can't. She never will. She is cast out, "saved" and damned at the same time, and the yearned-for reunion will never--can never--occur. "I can't even SEE you," she mourns, weeping in the snow, then turns away forever from the shadow of what she once shared, the bone-deep warmth and baffling freedom of no longer having to make choices, of acting only on another's whim, of having something lodged so deep inside you it's like you're the exact same person.

This, Perkins implies, is on possible version of what happens when a lonely enough person takes the Devil as their imaginary friend. And this is also what might happen after the priests have gone home, especially in an over-medicated, secular society: the exorcised person has to live the rest of their life with the result, apparently rating no post-traumatic therapy whatsoever, not even in terms of simply confirming that what she thinks happened actually happened.

It's a singularly pitiless vision, and Perkins pulls it off with full marks. I mean, Regan MacNeill at least got a kiss and a medal, along with what one can only assume was a merciful case of very specific amnesia (unless you keep with The Exorcist the TV series's version of events, that is, in which we realize she was always just pretending not to remember for the sake of everyone else around her). Kat/Rose, on the other hand, gets nothing, not even a lousy THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT t-shirt. While we, the audience, are left alone with her in the dark, the chill, with blood frozen stiff on our frost-bitten hands.


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