Silent House on a slippery slope
Hot on the heels of wrapping on her first film Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen dove straight into her second role, an intense week-long shoot for Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s “one continuous shot” feature Silent House. Not only is Silent House a remake of the 2010 Uruguayan film La casa muda (supposedly based on a true story from a Uruguayan village in the 1940s) but it also lifts the same gimmicks the original utilised and, for all intents and purposes, contains a bare minimum of originality.
The premise is simple and the idea is a novel one (or at least in the original film it was). A single hand-held camera follows the central character, Sarah, as she revisits the old family home with her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) in order to tidy it up before putting it on the market. It would appear that the first act, up to the point where the action spills briefly to outside the house, is one long take. However, the truth is that the film is composed of a series of takes spliced together to mimic the effect of the original. In and of itself, that’s not a major issue and the editing is virtually seamless until the third act. In the final 20 minutes it becomes easier to see the cuts, though Silent House would be lucky if this was the sole problem the climax presents. As with many films of its horror/psychological thriller ilk, all the tension and suspense built up in the first two acts rely on a strong payoff to in order to have any import. Even the greatest of set-ups is rendered meaningless when the rug is subsequently pulled from beneath the viewer. So when Silent House unleashes its reveal, the wheels come flying off. Amidst the wait-a-minutes and the whats is the very simple fact that the film has been lying to its audience all along.
Now before going any further, it’s important to give credit where it is due and here that honour is all Olsen’s. She is simply superb in a role that requires extended takes and sobs of varying volumes. Her performance comes across as entirely natural and even when Silent House serves up the insulting twist, Olsen’s portrayal cannot be faulted. She elevates what could easily have been a cheesy idea and makes it highly watchable. Lau and Kentis use minimal lighting to nice effect and sound editing and score plays a large and successful role in ratcheting up the suspense. Still, even before it all goes pear-shaped, there are some dubious logic gaps that are easy enough to get over despite the incredible stupidity behind it (why no one thought to open the shutters and curtains while cleaning an electricity-less house in the middle of a bright day remains a mystery).
The problem with Silent House’s reveal is actually not the reveal itself. If the film had been shot differently and presented the action from the point of view of those involved other than Sarah, it could have possibly worked. The idea behind where the plot goes makes sense enough, despite being rough around the edges, but the execution is wholly unforgivable. In cinemas there is an unspoken trust between viewer and film-maker. The viewer will suspend their disbelief in order to be adequately entertained and it is up to the film-maker (or film-makers, in this case) to not abuse that trust. Drawn shutters can be happily forgiven so long it isn’t simply the appetiser prior to an intelligence insulting full course. Yet Lau and Kentis absolutely violate that mutual agreement with a swerve that implies everything seen up to that point was a lie. If the first 90% of the film was a lie, who is the say the final 10% isn’t as well? It’s a slippery slope that is a lose-lose for both audience and film-maker alike and that is the real horror of Silent House.
Essentially, Silent House provides an excellent follow-up performance from Elizabeth Olsen and little else of value. It’s almost unfortunate that she is so good here and rescues the film from being a total throw-away. Yes, it is a nice little thriller for most of its run-time but when a film actively ruins enjoyable aspects in the way Silent House does, it sends a message that the audience shouldn’t have even wasted its collective time in caring to begin with. It’s a dangerous message to send and Olsen deserves better. So do you. 5/10