A reclusive survivalist lives with his family in a cabin about as far off the grid as possible. He spends his days training his daughter to hunt and live off the land while keeping an eye on his wife, who likes to wander off on her own.
Following a series of convenient events, the wife gets a chance to grab her daughter and takes off through the woods. It turns out their isolated cabin in the woods was a crime scene. Twelve years before, the father, Jacob Holbrook (Ben Mendelsohn), kidnapped the mother and kept her prisoner in that cabin. The offspring of their time together, their daughter Helena (Brooklyn Prince), does not know their parents’ past. All she knows is that something or someone (the police, her mother) is taking her daddy away.
Flash forward rather abruptly, and we meet grownup Helena (Daisy Ridley) at her job punching numbers into a spreadsheet. She has a husband and daughter of her own and leads a pretty normal life, except for her daily routine of putting makeup on to hide the tattoos her ‘dad’ carved into her skin. Helena comes home from work one day to find half a dozen cop cars surrounding her house. Her dad, whom the press christened The Marsh King for setting up a fiefdom in the forest, has escaped and could be heading her way.
Thank goodness Helena remembers her training in the woods.
On paper, the idea for The Marsh King has the bones for a solid, if predictable, thriller. The director, Neil Burger, has a track record for delivering entertaining character-driven action on the silver screen, most notably in films like The Illusionist and Limitless. And they cast the super-talented Ben Mendelsohn as the bad guy. So why is The Marsh King’s Daughter such a stinker?
Let’s start with the sluggish pacing of the story. Burger spends almost the first third of the movie showing dad and daughter going out on their survival lessons. It’s interesting for a while, even though everything The Marsh King says sounds like he crammed everything from a survivalist handbook. Since the trailers have already told us the big reveal, though, the film needs to use this time to build tension or at least drop unexpected clues about what we know will happen. It doesn’t.
Then there’s the one-dimensional performance of Ridley as the grown-up daughter. The character needs to walk that tightrope balance between what happened in her past and the new life she has with her family. While she certainly has the haunted part down tight, Ridley isn’t as convincing in showing us the new and improved Helena. She also stumbles when it comes time to regress to the huntress she was at 12 and going off to hunt her dad before he can hurt her anymore.
And then there is the way The Marsh King’s Daughter wastes Mendelsohn’s time and talent. The guy has been in almost a hundred movies and TV shows, playing memorable supporting characters in films ranging from Robin Hood to Ready Player One. Watching what he would do with such a meaty co-lead role is one of the reasons to see this movie in the first place. And it’s the biggest disappointment.