Reviewed by: Shawna Ellis
|• Young-Adults • Adults
|Psychological-Thriller Crime Suspense Mystery Drama Adaptation
|1 hr. 48 min.
|Year of Release:
November 3, 2023
DVD: January 2, 2024
Setting: Marshlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Based on the 2017 novel by Karen Dionne
Abduction, vicious kidnapping
A young mother protecting her family from a predatory man
Daisy Ridley … Helena Pelletier
Garrett Hedlund … Stephen Pelletier
Ben Mendelsohn … Jacob Holbrook
Gil Birmingham … Clark
Brooklynn Prince … Young Helena
Caren Pistorius … Helena’s mother
Joey Carson … Marigold Pelletier
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|Neil Burger — “The Illusionist” (2006), “Limitless” (2011), “Divergent” (2014), “Interview with the Assassin” (2002)
Black Bear Pictures
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|Lionsgate (Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.)
“Fear the past or face it”
“You must always protect your family.” This was the culmination of the many survival lessons taught to an impressionable young girl by her father. But as she grows to have a family of her own, the daughter comes to understand that there is a vast difference between “protection” and “possession.”
“The Marsh King’s Daughter” is a psychological thriller exploring the meaning of family and the weight of a troubling past. The film is based on a novel of the same title by authoress Karen Dione. I have not read the book, and I attempted to go into this film only knowing what I had seen in the very intense and captivating trailer and wish to do the same for the readers here.
We meet a girl living in isolation with her father Jacob (Ben Mendelsohn) and her troubled mother (Caren Pistorius). Young Helena (played convincingly by Brooklynn Prince) is eager to please her father as he teaches her lessons about life and survival in the remote wilderness of Upper Peninsula Michigan. Her world is changed forever when she learns that her family is not what it seems, and that the father she idolizes is a man capable of terrible things.
Twenty years later, we find adult Helena (Daisy Ridley) living a vastly different life with her own eager little girl and kind husband. She has tried to cover up her disturbing past by weaving an invented narrative of her history. Can such a past be set aside so easily? What will happen when her estranged father dubbed “The Marsh King” is free once more?
I had high hopes for this film, as it has a fine cast and a compelling plot. However, it had a troubled beginning with changes in distribution companies, re-casting of the lead actress, change in director and an altered release date. There was little in the way of promotion, and it has been received with less than average enthusiasm.
I found there to be several strong points in the film, including the beautiful wilderness setting, the intense musical score, and the emphasis on family and the painful yet necessary unearthing of secrets. However, at times the film was rather predictable, with awkward pacing and some moments of wooden acting and dialog.
The strength of the movie lies in its message… this is a film of strong character contrasts. The antagonist, Jacob Holbrook, is shown convincingly (and chillingly) as both a doting father and a narcissistic abuser. What happens when good goals such as “protecting the family” are carried out with immoral actions? Is it possible to both love someone and at the same time be horrified at what they have done?
The children of even the most heinous abusers sometimes struggle with this dichotomy. The abusers themselves often don’t see anything wrong with their actions… indeed, Helena’s father refers to her childhood as “perfect,” despite his great wrongdoing.
Although few of us are as cruel and hurtful as the “Marsh King,” we often have a skewed view of our own sinfulness, using excuses to justify our sin just as he does. Many of us claim to have had righteous goals and to have lived a “perfect” life, yet the Bible says we are deceiving ourselves (1 John 1:8).
About the fall of mankind to worldwide depravity
What is SIN AND WICKEDNESS? Is it just “bad people” that are sinners, or are YOU a sinner? Answer
Are you good enough to get to Heaven? Answer
How good is good enough? Answer
In another striking contrast, Helena’s mother is considered by both young Helena and her husband as weak-willed, when in reality she shows great strength in trying to protect her daughter. This illustrates the vast difference between “weakness” and “sacrifice.” For example, many might perceive the Lord Jesus to have been weak as He was arrested, beaten and led to the cross, and yet His actions were both courageous and intentional as a willing sacrifice to pay for our sins. He could have escaped this suffering at any moment but was obedient to God’s will for our good (Philippians 2:8).
How and why did Jesus greatly humble himself for us? Answer
What does the Bible say about HUMILITY?
Forgiveness and understanding are displayed by Helena’s husband, Stephen (played blandly by Garrett Hedlund). Although he was deceived about Helena’s past, he shows grace to her when he comes to understand the shocking truth.
Another display of love is shown in the character Clark, Helena’s stepfather (Gil Birmingham). As a law enforcement officer, Clark is the only one who knows Helena’s history and who understands the depravity of her father The Marsh King. Although her mother is no longer living, Clark still shows the devotion of a kind father figure to his stepdaughter.
Helena herself is a loving mother willing to do anything to protect her little girl, even if it means confronting the painful past. She learns that one’s history is not something that should be hidden from those she loves but is a part of who she has become as a wife and mother.
These strong messages about the true meaning of protection and family are a nice change from the usual self-centered fare in modern movies. However, the film is not for everyone and has some problematic content.
Content of concern is mostly centered around violence and disturbing scenes of abuse, which is what earns the R-rating. We see several forms of violence toward humans and animals (hunting and trapping). People are shot, beaten, threatened, held captive, hit with objects, and in other peril. Blood and wounds are shown, and we see close views of a child being tattooed. There is a vehicle wreck. Burned human remains are seen, as are the bodies of dead animals with a brief scene of a coyote chewing its leg to escape a trap. Suicide is mentioned.
Although there is no sexual content depicted, the lead actress is shown in a tank top and underwear in a non-sexual scene. We learn about a prior non-consensual sexual relationship, but no details are given.
There are a few uses of God’s name as an expletive, as well as a couple of relatively mild curses. This is markedly different from most movies of this genera with an R-rating.
Jacob has tattooed himself and his daughter with various symbols that he seems to believe have symbolic importance.
“The Marsh King” unfortunately does not live up to its great potential cinematically, due to some dull moments, predictable plot points and occasions of lackluster acting. The message is mostly commendable, but viewers will have to weigh how much violence they are willing to accept for that message.
In this movie we see a father who is self-focused, domineering and ruthless. He brought his child up in his own twisted way, and not as men are instructed to do in Ephesians 6:4, “… in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
I am saddened that for many living right now, this is the kind of father they may have. My heart aches for those who have suffered cruelties at the hands of men meant to lead and protect them and have never known the love of a kind father! I pray for those who have experienced this reality that they will come to know the perfect Father, who loves us so much He sent Jesus to save us. In 1 John 3:1 we read,
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.