Not So Holy Night
Silent House is an astonishing technical achievement and, for the most part, a frightening and inspired genre picture, but it does not reach the finish line without blemish or blunder. After wowing Sundance attendees and art-house moviegoers in last year's indie gem Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen delivers another sterling performance here as Sarah, a woman who, as the film begins, is visiting her father and uncle at a rural house they are renovating. Presented as one continuous shot--there are a few cuts, not so well disguised as to be invisible, but never obvious either--the first image we see is Sarah staring across the water. Then she turns, moves towards the house, converses with her father and uncle, etc. Shortly thereafter, strange noises are heard, it becomes clear there are one or more intruders in the house, and her father is beaten within an inch of his life. The film, at its best when it is blunt, straightforward, out to scare audiences witless, documents Sarah's subsequent night of abject terror in real time.
This is the long overdue third feature by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, the husband/wife team responsible for Open Water, the memorable Jaws/Blair Witch blend released almost a decade ago, and they continue to impress. The one-shot illusion is fascinating. It gives the picture a real sense of urgent claustrophobia. In its most suspenseful sequences, which come one after the other for around 50 minutes, the audience is never more or less aware than Sarah, but rather we are with her step by step through the shadow-filled corridors and into the labyrinthine basement and so on and so forth. Also, in what has to be called a surprise, Kentis and Lau do not lean too much on startling musical stings to generate a fast rush of fear, instead favoring visual approaches, from a general sense of geographical confusion--the camera is always darting, and the power in the house is out--to a few specific neat ideas, including a sequence where Sarah uses the the fleeting burst of light provided by a camera's flash to navigate. Alas, one downside of how this film has been conceived, shot, and edited is the impact on the storytelling and dialogue. Character development is, it turns out, more challenging in real time. Try not to grimace when the father and uncle end their sentences with "brother," conveying their familial bond with the subtle touch of an A-bomb. And, worse still, the one-shot approach sits ill at ease with the film's unsettling, but also playing-unfair third-act foray into psychological territory; the camera here grounds the story, it is The Strangers if-you-were-there-with-the-character-every-step-of-the-way, so the sensation is confusing and deflating when one realizes several steps were not shown. Almost a whole staircase, in fact.
Elizabeth Olsen sure is good, though. She has a particular talent for what I will call the non-scream, where her character is hiding from a nearby villain and has to hold every emotion--fear, sorrow, anger--in. Seeing Olsen perform these moments (tears running down her face, biting her hand, trembling) is electrifying. She is nowhere near matched by her co-stars, but this is a minor issue. She's the star. She's in every scene. And it's a great performance. The film containing it has great stretches, but, I am sad to report, a flawed overall game plan.