REVIEW: ‘Silent House’ (2012)

Grade: B-

I think I’m addicted to Elizabeth Olsen’s face.

I realize how creepy that sounds, but let me try to explain. Having only seen her in two movies – first in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and now in Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s thriller Silent House – Olsen has already proven to me that she has possibly the most interesting face in movies today. I’m addicted to her face in the same way I’m addicted to the faces of Michael Shannon or Marion Cotillard. From her sharp cheekbones to her large, piercing eyes, Olsen’s distinctive traits make it difficult for me to keep my own eyes off her. What makes Olsen a truly compelling performer, however, is more than her simple physiognomy; so much of her performances rely on her ability to convey emotion and thought through stark yet naturalistic expressions that lend an authenticity to her characters that isn’t necessarily found on the page.

Olsen’s face – and by logical extension, Olsen herself – proves the true highlight of Silent House, even more so than the film’s most marketable gimmick: that it’s a film shot ostensibly in a single take. With a few other actors only sporadically available to make appearances, Olsen really serves as the camera’s sole subject for the film’s duration. Thank goodness this movie employs so alluring a presence; almost entirely on her merits, Silent House manages to overcome its numerous flaws to leave a lasting impression as a tense, economic scare-machine having more to provide than simple gimmickry.

In Silent House we follow Sarah (Olsen) over the course of some 85 minutes as some unseen assailant locks her inside her family’s old cabin and terrorizes her. As its one-take premise might suggest, the story’s real-time progression affords little space to flesh out either Sarah’s character or the few individuals she encounters, such as her father (Adam Trese) or her Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens). Lau, who wrote this movie after the Gustavo Hernández 2010 film of the same name, occasionally drops hints throughout the story regarding Sarah’s past, but we never quite feel like we get a good sense of the kind of person she is, aside from some awkwardly infantilized interactions on her part with the men in her family. Lau and Kentis, who also collaborated on the 2003 minimalist thriller Open Water, are more interested in atmospheric chills above all else.

Dramatically, this emphasis on atmosphere has a boon-and-bust relationship with Silent House. Like the hazardous, watery void of Open Water, the dank, ramshackle family cabin here serves as an effectively chilly template for the movie’s big scares. Though I originally called it a gimmick, it should be said that the one-take approach suits the film quite nicely. With no (apparent) cut to be seen, we are made to follow Sarah as she explores every floor of the cabin, every stairwell, and every nook without exception. This establishes in the cabin a surprisingly clear sense of space, and that space feels more than adequately exploited for horrific effect.

Speaking of exploitation, the unblinking camera brings a perverse, voyeuristic vibe to peeping on Sarah (and her perpetual cleavage) throughout her ordeal. All of this lends the first 70 minutes of Silent House the feel of tawdry, but effectively nihilistic thriller. It’s remarkable, however, just how easily Kentis and Lau derail all that by daring to solve the mystery behind Sarah’s phantom menace as they do. It’s difficult to tackle this derailment without spoiling the movie, so let’s just say the directors fail to effectively reconcile its first 70 minutes of exploitation with the heavy-handed psychodrama of its climactic plot twist. It’s a failure not because the twist is a predictable cliché (though it is), but because it ultimately depends on our ability to connect with Sarah and her relationship with her family in a way that was never truly there. This failure to connect in part has to do with the stilted performances of Trese and Sheffer Stevens, but the brunt of the blame should really be placed on the movie’s unkempt plotting.

Yet despite that severe misstep toward the end, Silent House ultimately works to me, and it’s largely in thanks to Olsen’s committed performance. Every tear she shed, every scream she bellowed, and every yelp she stifled not only made me a believer in this material, but it convinced me that her breakthrough role in Martha Marcy was no fluke. I truly cannot wait to see what she – and her truly magnetic face – will do next.

Bottom Line: Its one-take gimmick may be Silent House‘s most marketable attribute, but Elizabeth Olsen is the true star of this minimalist thriller.

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