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Silent House
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by Peter Sobczynski

1 stars

Back in 1948, the great Alfred Hitchcock decided to conduct one of the grandiose technical experiments that he occasionally would undertake throughout his career as a way of challenging himself by shooting a movie in a series of long takes that would be interrupted only by the camera running out of film after about ten minutes or so--by concealing those unavoidable breaks via clever editing, it would look as though the entire thing had somehow been shot in one long take While the resulting film, "Rope," is a solid work for the most part, the least interesting thing about it is the long take conceit--the stylistic choice calls too much attention to itself at times for its own good--and while Hitchcock would hardly shy away from elaborately conceived set-piece sequences in later efforts, even he regarded the film as a stunt that did not quite pan out as well as he had hoped.

Although one might think that most directors would try to avoid a stylistic approach that even Hitchcock himself couldn't quite get to work, there have been several subsequent attempts to pull off the feature-length single-shot gimmick. Although Aleksander Sokurov utilized this conceit to brilliant effect in "Russian Ark," in which his camera roamed through the halls of Russia's Hermitage Museum and brought 200 years of Russian history to life, others such as the 1995 Johnny Depp misfire "Nick of Time" have merely used the gimmick to cover up for their serious dramatic flaw. The latest feature to attempt the single-shot gimmick is the new horror film "Silent House" and it doesn't take very long to realize that it belongs squarely in the latter camp and not even the obvious efforts of the technical crew and up-and-coming star Elizabeth Olsen can rescue it from the clutches of terminal mediocrity.

Based on a 2010 film from Uruguay (which also employed the same gimmick), the film stars Olsen as Sarah, a young woman who has returned to her family's now-dilapidated lake house in order to help her father, John (Adam Trese), and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) clean up the damage wrought by nature, squatters and the like before putting it up for sale. It is so run down, in fact, that the whole joint is pitch-black inside despite the bright sunlight outside thanks to the lack of electricity and the boarded-up windows. Before long, Sarah begins to hear funny noises and even though she and her father explore much of the place with a couple of camping lights, they don't find anything. Of course, the noises return with increasing fury and Sarah is convinced that someone is in the house with them, especially when she comes across her dad's unconscious and badly injured body lying on the ground. Now locked inside the house, Sarah must play a cat-and-mouse game in the darkness with the apparent intruder in order to save her own life and bring help for her dad. I wouldn't dream of revealing what happens next, largely because I am not entirely sure that either I could piece it all together myself or that you would believe me if I could. However, I will note that in the long annals of screen history, you will rarely find a greater meeting of the minds between the characters on the screen and those in the audience as you will find during a key moment when one character proposes a certain course of action and the other incredulously responds "Are you fucking kidding me?"

For those of you who caught the original film (which has popped on HBO/Cinemax in recent weeks), it should be noted that this iteration more or less follows the original for at least the first two-thirds before spiraling off into new and wholly unsatisfying directions in the final reels. (How much of this was originally designed that way and how much of it came about as the result of reshoots to the ending done after the film premiered at Sundance in 2011 is unknown to me.) However, whatever changes have been made to this version by co-directors Chris Kentis & Laura Lau (making the long-awaited follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2006 debut, the low-fi shark attack thriller "Open Water"), they can't avoid the central problem with the material and that is the fact that the one-take gimmick is all wrong for this kind of storytelling. For one thing, it is fairly obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of cinema technique that the film, whatever its technical achievements, has most certainly not been staged in one 80-minute take and whatever dramatic tension that might have existed as a result if it had, between the shaky camera work, the circuitous routes the camera sometimes takes to get from point A to point B and the numerous moments when everything just goes to black, is quickly dissipated.

An even more fundamental flaw is that by willfully excluding the art of editing, at least overtly, from the cinematic process undermines everything that make it such a distinctive artistic form in the first place. Thanks to editing, filmmakers can elongate or condense story lines, shape performances and fine-tune individual moments so that they can achieve maximum dramatic impact. By taking the editing process away, the directors have essentially removed themselves as well and transformed "Silent House" into something more closely resembling live theater--without the accompanying energy, of course--in which their efforts are shunted to the background while the story and the characters are given greater importance. Unfortunately, these are the very areas in which the film is at its absolute weakest. The screenplay cannot seem to decide whether it wants to be a haunted house spook show, a brutal home-invasion drama or a twisty psychological thriller and so therefore flits from one approach to the next seemingly from scene to scene and seemingly less out of a desire to keep viewers on their toes as because of an evident decision to simply throw everything at the screen and see what sticks and what doesn't. The characters are all ciphers whose often-inexplicable actions make them look like idiots at the time and like even bigger idiots when the story tries to explain said actions during the ending. Oh yeah, about that ending--oh boy! Granted, the original film didn't have the greatest denouement in cinema history but it at least felt as though it were an actual part of the proceedings. By comparison, this version could barely be said to even have an ending period, let alone a satisfactory one. Let me put it this way--it may not have a more unsatisfactory conclusion than the one that graced the now-infamous "The Devil Inside" but the notion that another film in 2012 could come closer to that lack of closure than this one is far more terrifying than anything to be found in the story proper.

The only element of "Silent House" that comes close to working is the lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen as Sarah. Okay, maybe it isn't so much a performance as it is an endurance contest but whatever one wants to call it, her ability to maintain an escalating head of hysteria while stumbling through the ruins of a rambling old house that seems to have more unexplained doorways than any other construction known to man (I would never chose to watch this film again but I would eagerly watch any of the dopes from HGTV take a tour of the joint while pointing out its architectural foibles), all the while having a camera jammed in her face and down her cleavage throughout is undeniably impressive. Olsen, you may recall, made the most startling screen debut in a long time last year with her brilliant and complex performance in the alternately fascinating and frightening drama "Martha Marcy May Marlene," one of last year's very best acting jobs and one unfairly ignored by the Oscars so as to provide nominations to substandard work from veterans like Meryl Streep and Glenn Close. Having seen what she is truly capable of achieving as an actress through that film, it is more than a bit disheartening to now see her here slumming in the kind of spook house silliness that could have been easily filled by any mid-level starlet on hiatus from her gig at the CW network.

As I said before, I do not claim to understand much of the barely controlled confusion that is "Silent House" but there are two things about it that I am almost positive that I know for sure. For one, I am convinced that Elizabeth Olsen will survive this film more or less unscathed and will once again go on to deliver upon the promise that she showed in "Martha Marcy May Marlene. For another, I am just as convinced that if she had anything to say about it, Olsen might have gone to enormous lengths to ensure that "Silent House" had hit theaters first so that everyone would have forgotten about by the time that "Martha Marcy May Marlene" hit theaters. Sure, "Silent House" will be forgotten by virtually everyone who encounters it within a week or two, but why chance it?

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21873&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/09/12 17:38:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/07/16 David Hollingsworth a waste of Olsen's time 1 stars
9/05/12 Matt C USA! USA! 2 stars
8/18/12 mr.mike Good DVD rental. 4 stars
3/15/12 Flipsider Cut! 1 stars
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  09-Mar-2012 (R)
  DVD: 24-Jul-2012


  DVD: 24-Jul-2012

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