ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emily Fear is a librarian in Western PA. You can hear her weekly on the women’s wrestling podcast Grit & Glitter, available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and all major platforms.
What defines a horror movie? What characteristics are required, what plot or thematic elements are necessary? Is horror defined by its monsters? Its suspense? Its violence, implied or explicit? Its gore? Its ability to manipulate, disturb, compel or horrify its audience?
The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, isn’t bothered by genre definitions. It exists in a murky zone between domestic drama, international intrigue and vacation horror. It plants the audience right in the middle of a dozen variations of tense, yet universally relatable stand-offs: having to interact with strangers on vacation, endless and chaotic fights with small children, conversations with people that suddenly become too intimate too quickly.
These scenes, especially the ones involving small children, are designed to make the audience itch with discomfort. Who hasn’t felt their shoulders tense up at the sound of a toddler’s tantrum, its immediate intensity coupled with dogged, almost-supernatural persistence? Who wouldn’t clutch themselves a little tighter in the presence of vaguely menacing, possibly-organized crime-involved men idling by their car for no reason?
Leda (Olivia Coleman) is on vacation in Greece and becomes entangled with a fellow group of beach goers, a large family with local roots and more than a little sinister energy. Among the family is Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother to a three-year old daughter, Elena. Observing the pair invokes memories of her own experiences raising her two daughters, memories more bitter than sweet.
When Elena goes missing, Leda assists in the search, eventually bringing the girl back to her mother – but not without absconding with Elena’s treasured doll. The missing doll causes the girl to collapse into an endless fit – one that extends beyond the afternoon into the following days and nights.
Leda observes the destructive impact that this has on Nina, but continues to keep the doll regardless, all the while befriending the young woman to the point of intimate confessions from both parties.
Flashbacks reveal Leda to be a short-tempered, emotionally distant mother, unequipped for the turbulence and neediness of two young daughters. Impulsive reactions give way to deliberate choices that ripple into the present, Leda all too familiar with the lasting unhappiness and suppressed rage of motherhood.
This would be a punishing slog of a film were it not for the performances. Coleman is, as usual, perfect at making an imperfect character simultaneously deeply relatable and incredibly loathsome. In her creation, Leda is like a poorly assimilating alien creature, awkward at best and carelessly destructive at worst. She can’t feign maternal warmth, but she does emanate a certain understanding to Nina and others, one that clearly says, “I’m not a good person and don’t expect you to be one either.”
There’s a freedom in dropping pretenses that this movie plays with in compelling ways. But what if those pretenses, those little polite acts of social contract, are all that keep the horrors at bay?
The Lost Daughter is available to stream on Netflix