Review: Silent House (2011)
Editor’s Note: For an alternate take on Silent House (2011), check out Luke Annand’s review.
After appearing in only two films, it seems clear to me that Elizabeth Olsen might just have the best face in all of actingdom. Everything about her is hugely expressive, from her eyes, capable of conveying brightest joy or darkest dread, to her mouth, which can smile vivdly but curl up in thoughtful uncertainty. There is a simultaneously strong-yet-vulnerable about her presence, something that keeps us on our heels. Her face can tell a story all on its own.
It’s no surprise, then, that someone would want to center an entire film on the power of her face. Silent House is built around and reliant upon Olsen’s ability to carry the story on her shoulders…or really, the solidity of what sits on the center of her shoulders. For nearly 90 minutes, the camera rarely drifts from her visage as she essentially walks the audience through a haunted maze in which her face is our guide. Unfolding in real time and giving the effect it was shot in a single take, Silent House could be seen as being tenuously built on a gimmick. But the filmmakers are attempting to explore themes far outside the traditionally manipulative confines of modern horror, and Olsen is the centering force that sells every moment.
Silent House is built around and reliant upon Olsen’s ability to carry the story on her shoulders…or really, the solidity of what sits on the center of her shoulders.
Olsen plays Sarah, who is helping her dad (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer) renovate a run-down family lake house. From the start, the surroundings seem ominous. The house is just decrepit enough to qualify as a haunted mansion. The dad and uncle bicker like some sort of awakward married couple. And Sarah is eerily confronted by a young woman (Julia Taylor Ross) claiming to be her childhood friend…but Sarah can barely remember her. Then Sarah starts hearing the kinds of ominous noises that send kids running to their parents’ bedrooms…except after a while, her dad disappears. The film becomes an insular travelogue of paranoia in which Sarah hears threatening sounds, sees shadowy figures, and can’t seem to escape no matter where she turns. The camera, always moving and never ceasing to roll (save a handful of well-hidden cuts in mid-motion), becomes part of Sarah’s trap. It is the albatross on her back, following along and becoming one part of her entrapment.
We’ve seen this set-up a million times before. Vulnerable young woman becomes trapped in an abandoned house…or cabin…or mansion. She hears noises, sees haunting images, and feels as if she is being stalked. Everything surrounding her situation in shrouded in mystery and no seemingly proactive move can help her escape the clutches of evil. This is the standard indomitable horror scenario, designed to get under our skin and always deny us true catharsis. Michael Haneke brilliantly skewered this cinematic construction in Funny Games, the kind of horror that dangles the hope of survival in face and then yanks it away to toy with us.
However, Silent House doesn’t mire itself in horror-show boondoggle with no way out. It is exploring unexpected themes inside this scary-movie box and using its gimmicky aesthetic as an extension of its character’s psycho-trauma. Not everything about its unveiling is effective and the movie’s end game is lacking some crucial subtlety. The storytelling here is decidedly minor-key compared to the richness and extraordinary complexity of Olsen’s 2011 debut film, Martha Marcy May Marlene, which ultimately tells a version of the same story. But filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, whose 2004 film Open Water has become something of a stripped-down classic, are reaching for something far deeper and more affecting than a simple bait-and-switch abandoned-woman horror story. They are probing the depths of real psychological horror and encasing it in a traditional set-up.
Good intentions aside, Silent House wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does if it weren’t for Olsen, who proves that the power of her work in Martha Marcy was absolutely not a fluke. She is a staggering talent, proving here that she can carry an entire film literally on the strength of her face. In a film that rarely pivots way from her presence, she is able to convey terror in real time, which is incredibly difficult. She is brilliant, and Silent House is a welcome departure from the horror porn mainstream.