Where other serial-killer yarns emphasize elements of mystery and suspense, soulful Russian drama “Daughter” boasts a periodic table of concerns, ranging from psychological to spiritual. The procedural elements resolve relatively early, allowing Natalia Nazarova’s screenplay (which she co-directs with Aleksandr Kasatkin) to assume the deeper texture of great Russian novels, weighing the interior states of its young protagonist and the other characters impacted by a disturbing outbreak of small-town murders. The film’s thoughtful nature is hindered somewhat by a tendency to underexplain what is happening, and unusually clumsy subtitles, easily correctable but likely limiting play to fests.
Maria Smolnikova, who resembles a young Juliette Binoche and shares that actress’s gift for emotional vulnerability, plays Inna, the teenage daughter of a widowed factory worker and sometime refrigerator repairman (Oleg Tkachev). In her mother’s absence, Inna tends to her younger brother, sheltered from the corrupting influences of the community around her by her conservative father.
The other parents in town aren’t nearly so protective, allowing their daughters to sneak out to the local bar, where they drink and flirt with older boys. But such precocious behavior makes them targets for the neighborhood psycho, who leaves behind their bodies, neither defiled nor robbed, but missing the crucifixes they normally wear around their necks — a token of the killer’s crimes.
Faith plays an important role in the lives of these townspeople, and it’s telling that two men shown identifying a young girl’s corpse in the opening scene are an Orthodox Catholic priest (Vladimir Mishukov) and his son (Igor Mazepa), also bound for the cloth. The handsome young man will become a source of temptation for both Inna and her new best friend, Masha (Yana Osipova), a bad influence and obvious target for the serial killer’s attentions.
“Daughter” attempts to show the turmoil of such an adolescence from her perspective, amplified by the murders of several classmates and the implied threat to her life. However, the curious style of its cinematography puts an unwelcome distance between audience and protagonist. The camera seems to have only two lenses, alternating between elegant static shots and the disequilibrium of handheld footage shot in wide angle. Though the lensing itself lacks finesse, the digital rig responds well to natural and low-light situations, capturing a haunting beauty in the spartan environments.
The film proves most rewarding when probing the complex inner feelings of its characters. Nearly midway through, the killer approaches the priest (whose own daughter was a victim) and gives his confession, introducing an intriguing moral dimension in which the clergyman must not only forgive the repentant sinner but also keep his confidence, while trusting the man not to strike again.
From here on, the film continues to snake and reinvent itself, sometimes to confusing ends, as it focuses not on trying to identify or capture the killer, but on the rather profound consequences that follow his arrest. In a community this small — and still plainly medieval in many ways — personal prejudices trump law, while Inna sits trapped and bewildered in the center of things.