The Marsh King's Daughter
Throwback thriller a notch above filler.
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Sometimes a good thriller hits the spot – simple, stripped-down, no frills, just thrills. They used to make movies like this prior to the mid-to-late aughts when branding and four-quadrant pictures took over the filmmaking industry.
“The Marsh King’s Daughter” (in theaters Friday, Nov. 3), an adaptation of Karen Dionne’s novel of the same name, is a throwback to these simpler times. If it’d been made 25 years ago it likely would’ve starred Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones. This one will likely appeal to true crime podcast listeners (the story echoes many actual cases) who are open to watching what’s ultimately an elevated Lifetime Movie, i.e. women.
Helena (Brooklynn Prince of “The Florida Project” and “Cocaine Bear”) is enjoying her upbringing in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She goes hunting with her father Jacob (aces Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn) and cooks their kills with her mother (Caren Pistorius, “Unhinged”). Helena’s life gets upended when it’s revealed that Jacob kidnapped her mother and the two are saved by kindly police officer Clark (the always reliable Gil Birmingham).
Helena’s now grown (and played by Daisy Ridley) and has a college professor husband Stephen (Garrett Hedlund) and daughter Marigold (Joey Carson) of her own. Her past hauntingly comes back when Jacob escapes from a prison transport. Helena’s concerned that dear old dad will come a-knockin’ and might even abduct Marigold. She intervenes before any of this can come to pass.
“The Marsh King’s Daughter” is helmed by Neil Burger (the workmanlike director of “The Illusionist” and “Limitless”) and adapted by Elle Smith and Mark L. Smith (he co-wrote the Oscar-winning “The Revenant” and penned the upcoming “The Boys in the Boat”). It’s a simple story told simply.
Where the movie really pays dividends is in its performances – I was especially impressed by Ridley, Mendelsohn and Prince. (Ridley and Prince are believable as one another and convincingly play Helena’s strength. Mendelsohn gives good baddie and is all the scarier as he clearly conveys Jacob’s doing what he feels is right.) Pistorius and Birmingham do what they can with underwritten roles, but each is given grace notes to play with which they excel. The only acting/casting misstep comes with Hedlund. I don’t think he’s an untalented actor, but his character is a bit of a cipher as written and I don’t entirely buy him as an intellectual. (Given another 10 or 15 years he’d seem a more natural fit for Jacob.)
“The Marsh King’s Daughter” doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it doesn’t need to. It feels like something you would’ve rented on VHS from Blockbuster on a Friday or Saturday night back in the mid-to-late 1990s. There’s something comforting in that.