'The Lost Daughter' delivers a steamy and unnerving psychological thriller

113 11/06/2022

There's a strange tension at play in The Lost Daughter. If you haven't read Elena Ferrante's novel on which it's based, you might assume the movie's title speaks to a dreadful loss, like kidnapping or worse. However, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal turns writer/director with a story far more cerebral. The tension is born from the psychological strain of a stranger, who becomes inescapably entangled in the life of a beautiful young mother she spots on a beach. The titular child is the totem that brings them together and pulls the stranger deeper and deeper into a past that she wishes to escape.

Vacations are supposed to be about escape, aren't they?

When English professor Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) steps onto the gleaming sands of a Greek resort, she's hoping for peace and quiet. But her solitude is shattered when onto the shore clatters a big family of loud Americans: rowdy young men, pushy women, and caterwauling children. Leda cringes at their conquering of the beach, but is captivated by the lithe Nina (Dakota Johnson), who dotes on her young daughter yet seems unhappy in this pleasant paradise. Flashbacks assault Leda, marauding her with miserable memories of her days as a young mother (Jessie Buckley) who was viciously overwhelmed. Like Nina, Young Leda's daughters are cute but abruptly cruel, and endlessly demanding her attention. How could Leda possibly be expected to also focus on her work, or work on her marriage, or be a person beyond Mommy Mommy Mommmmeeeeee? And how dare she want to.

Drawing from Ferrante's influence, Gyllenhaal explores these forbidden feelings of motherhood. A mother is never supposed to admit that her children don't fulfill her or that even if she loves them, it doesn't mean she likes them. The children onscreen are not the precious poppets of family-friendly movies. Gyllenhaal astutely punctuates the soundscape of her film with the nails-on-a-chalkboard wailing and whining of a child in full tantrum mode. She showcases childrens' casual violence and their absolute ignorance of their parents' personhood. Simply put, she shows succinctly how children can be a maddening burden. Their mouths full of demands, their little arms clawing at their mother's body, when all she wants —needs even — is a few minutes to herself.

Olivia Colman becomes fixated on Dakota Johnson in "The Lost Daughter." Credit: YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX

'The Lost Daughter' delivers a steamy and unnerving psychological thriller

Leda recognizes in Nina these transgressive thoughts. Through stolen glances and unspoken secrets, they begin to bond. But it is a brittle bond, as Leda is still a mystery to Nina and us. Tension spawns from what Leda might do as a mentor to this young woman. Can she save Nina from the mistakes she knows too well? Or does this shared recognition mean she resents Nina, perhaps in part for crashing her holiday as a lurid reminder of all of her regrets?

Gyllenhaal seductively slides the story from present to past and back and again, each half slick with sex, lies, and a low-boil terror of what cruelty mothers might be capable of. In the past, a tryst with a bearded, burly academic (played by Gyllenhaal's husband Peter Sarsgaard) gives Young Leda rapturous escape as well as a heady reminder of her own feminine allure. In the present, Leda tumbles into a clumsy flirtation with a jangly but kind handyman (Ed Harris). However, the real heat comes from her voyeuristic attention to Nina's sex life. The thrall of all this is heightened by a theme instrumental that sways and slithers and sounds distinctly like Portishead's "Glory Box," (a song that Colman herself covered beautifully for a charity album.) So, even when these women can't give voice to their carnal needs, the score seems to scream, "Give me a reason to love you/ Give me a reason to be a woman/ I just wanna be a woman."

Why yes, Maggie Gyllenhaal cast her husband as a hot love interest. Credit: NETFLIX

A sensational ensemble keeps the heat of these interactions to a suitably dizzying degree. Yet their true treasures are in the intensity of their agonies. When Buckley runs a trembling palm over Saarsgard's naked, resplendently hairy chest, the thrill is divine. But when she hisses to her husband, "I'm suffocating," we choke with her.

Gyllenhaal has perfectly cast her husband as a crush-worthy intellectual, and Buckley's an almost obvious pairing, as she's been crushing it with complex leading roles in Wild Rose and I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Johnson's signature smirking allure serves her well as a mother with haunting mystique, then she edges that with a cutting fragility. But it's Colman who shoulders this film as its flagrantly unlikeable protagonist. Fuck your desire for a heroine with heart or good intentions. Leda is petty and selfish and vengeful and she's spectacular. Colman makes sure she's spectacular.

Fuck your desire for a heroine with heart or good intentions.

Her riveting screen presence draws us in through interactions awkward or isolating. Her frown makes us tremble. Her overeager wave hello makes us cringe because Colman is a performer who eases us into the skin of her characters. You might tell yourself you'd never be like Leda, but you can't escape her journey. Her hurt and embarrassment are contagious. So, when Lena says with a brittle smile, "Children are a crushing responsibility. Happy birthday," you may laugh or blink or shudder. But you can't shake her off, she's shivering your spine with her fearless frankness.

Delving into the taboo aspects of motherhood, Maggie Gyllenhaal has made a bold directorial debut with The Lost Daughter. She played it smart by pulling together a stellar ensemble, whose astonishing depth and sizzling screen presence lures us in and won't let us look away, even when our heroine is plunging into the repulsive. Savage, sophisticated, and sensual, The Lost Daughter is a psychological thriller that will titillate and terrify, then leave you stranded to pick up the tattered pieces.

The Lost Daughter opens in select theaters on Dec. 17 and on Netflix Dec. 31.

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