Silent House is one of those films that might be impossible to thoroughly discuss without spoiling. Though there is plenty to say about the gimmicky “single shot” illusion of the filming style, I can’t go into any detail whatsoever without erupting into a fit of how the major twist negates everything that makes the film annoyingly unique in the first place.
So here’s the non-spoilered review of Silent House: it’s a mildly new, occasionally unnerving haunted house(ish) tale with a great central performance and stupid filming gimmick that completely undoes everything about itself in the final act. One could do worse than watching it for 90 minutes, but one could also save his or herself a momentary spike in blood pressure when some things are revealed.
Now open that expired gallon of milk: we’re going to get spoilery.
Quick Plot: Sarah is a spacey young woman spending time with her dad and uncle as they clean up their old summer house, an isolated little property that has apparently been hosting angry squatters during the offseason. On this particular afternoon, our pretty heroine is visited by a mysterious girl claiming to be her old childhood pal. Sarah doesn’t seem to actually remember the woman, but she fakes it well enough before returning upstairs with her dad to throw away some childhood mementos and breathe in some wall mold. Everything is fine and dandy in a poorly lit manner until Sarah’s dad leaves the room, a giant bang is heard, and it becomes increasingly clear that someone has ominous plans for our leads.
Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (the same team that brought us Open Water), Silent House is occasionally effective, particularly in its first hour or so. Having absolutely no clue what menace is tormenting our star works incredibly well, and Elizabeth Olsen has the kind of glassy wide eyes to sell true fear. But much like Open Water, this is a film built more on gimmick than substance, and in that exists two problems:
1-The ‘one shot’ illusion doesn’t really add much to what we’re watching, making us instead constantly distracted by the fact that we can’t really see anything
2-Once the film’s twist is revealed, it negates everything, primarily, the entire one-shot illusion
I’m going to spoil Silent House. And I am not going to feel bad about it:
About halfway through the film, I thought to myself, “I wonder if this is one of those ‘the victim IS the killer’ twists.” But then I said, well, that CAN’T be the case since everything we’ve thus far seen has been this “one continuous (not really) shot” and our eyes have been on Sarah the entire time. So if she is indeed the killer, that means I just watched absolutely nothing.
And then, like a pixie cut sporting French woman wielding an axe in the early 21st century, little Elizabeth Olsen proves to be starring in a nonsensical J-horror of sorts meeting Law & Order: SVU.
Oh yeah: and she did it.
Right. She, this character whom we’ve had our eyes on straight for 90 minutes, somehow managed to take down two much bigger men when we weren’t looking. Except, you know, we WERE looking. For the entire film. Which was “one-shot.” Meaning “one-shot where our eyes were on Sarah the entire time.” But she’s the killer. You missed that I guess.
Much like the better, but still innately flawed High Tension, Silent House doesn’t really deserve to exist as a movie in its current state. See, think back to ANOTHER film with a twist I’m about to spoil, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.
Gandalf is working HARD today.
In The Village, the audience gets a twist ending that has no effect on the characters whatsoever. Bryce Dallas Howard’s heroine learns about the twist, but then other factors come into play that negates them in her mind so therefore, the only character actually affected by what happened onscreen is someone played by the director in his signature unnecessary cameo in the final scene. We spent 100 minutes watching something that ultimately has no effect on anything.
Sort of like how in High Tension--
We watch (admittedly, a much better) mess wherein what we think we’re seeing isn’t actually happening in the least.
Had Silent House been told through more conventional filmmaking techniques, it would not have been a great film but it could have been a good one packing a strong lead and some effective scares. But because it’s based on a well-received Uruguayan film that made waves due to its style, Kentis and Lau have created the equivalent of a stylish rain coat made of shaving cream. Yes, it looks neat, but as soon as you dare test it out for its purpose, the whole thing evaporates.
Silent House is scary at times. I’ll give it that. But once you discover its secret, what you REALLY discover is that every minute of its running time is a fantasy of its makers. The one-shot trick means we can’t even chalk up Sarah’s psychosis to a second personality. How could someone else exist in her mind when we’ve watched her in REAL TIME?
I am perfectly fine and encouraging of filmmakers using new means to tell stories, just as I am positively okay with token twist endings. But when you pair the two together in a way that doesn’t make sense, it’s like putting hot chocolate on unicorn steak.
Well, maybe not that analogy since hot chocolate covered unicorn steak sounds positively delicious. My point is this: if you want to use a filming gimmick, you have to be sure it makes sense for the story you want to tell. A one-shot film could be perfectly fine. But when you apply that trick to a script like Silent House, you are annulling the very film you are trying to make.
In case it’s not clear, I am angry.
As she demonstrated earlier last year with the complexity of Martha Mary May Marlene (or Mandy Melissa Marie Megan Marcia Marcia Marcia, I give up), Olsen is proving to be one of the most interesting actresses to emerge from her generation. Yes, the role is a written like a mess, but Olsen does the best she can to make us not hate Sarah, even when the script calls for her to hide under yet another table
I’ve said this time and time before: it is easier to fight the forces of evil with your hair out of your face. So thank you, Sarah, for grabbing that hair tie amidst the threat of attack
Oh well, I don’t, I mean, what can I say about A MOVIE THAT GETS FAMOUS FOR ITS GIMMICK EVEN THOUGH THE GIMMICK MAKES THE MOVIE NOT MAKE ANY SENSE
When in doubt, hide under furniture. Your sociopathic subconscious will NEVER think to look there
Though production on the actual film has now been discontinued and the far improved technology of the digital world has rendered them obsolete, one should still always keep a Polaroid camera on hand. If nothing else, it’s a mildly effective source of short spurts of light
If you’re worried about the audience not being able to know who a character is in relation to another, be sure to have one constantly acknowledge said relationship in every bit of dialogue, i.e., “My brother can really get on my nerves!” or “I’m not leaving my brother!” or “Look, little brother…” and so on.
Silent House made me very angry. In the words of Project Runway’s spectacular contestant Dimitri, it is a one way monkey but I shall add, it is a one way monkey without directions to that one way. Olsen gives a better performance than the script deserves, and while there are occasional shots of intrigue, there’s also the whole “the camera seems to be lingering on that empty space. I bet there---oh, there goes a shadow” moments that make for a great trailer and predictable movie. If you’re easily infuriated by bad endings, stay away. I imagine the complete nonsense of the twist is what warranted Silent House an “F” grade from theatrical audiences, and while this is certainly a better film than some other Friday night junk, it is indeed built upon a premise that ultimately damns it to a realm of boos hisses.