This new film from directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, the husband-and-wife team responsible foe “Open Water,” will probably become best known for being shot (by cinematographer Igor Martinovic) in one single continuous take, as was the case with “Russian Ark.” But in Alexander Sokurov’s film the tactic had an artistic purpose; the camera gliding through the rooms of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage presented what amounted to an impressionistic journey through three hundred years of Russian history. And it was brilliantly executed, with the smooth Steadicam traversal capturing a wide array of figures in elegant costumes and elaborate compositions.
By contrast the use of the technique in “Silent House” comes across as a mere stunt, dictated more by budgetary concerns than any higher purpose. And even if that’s not the case, Alfred Hitchcock, who attempted much the same trick in “Rope” (with due concessions to the technical limitations of the equipment in 1948), found that it was an exercise that undermined tension and suspense rather than enhancing them by making it more difficult to employ the very means—close-ups, cuts, camera angles—that can so effectively accentuate the narrative’s possibilities.
And it certainly doesn’t help that in this case the production values are so low-rent. Given the dark, dank setting of the story, the endless, jerky hand-held tracking results in images that are frequently blurred and murky, often featuring backgrounds that are utterly indistinct while people and things upstage are crisp. This is “Rope” for Dogma-tists.
Of course, complaining about the movie’s technical shortcomings would be mere carping if it worked simply as a thriller. It doesn’t. Basically “Silent House”—with an adjective that’s pretty inappropriate given all the screaming and thumping that goes on, not to mention an insistent score by Nathan Larson that tries desperately to create a nerve-wracking atmosphere and bolster the sudden-shock moments (as well as playing up plenty of false ones)—is about a girl named Sarah (Elisabeth Olsen) who wanders about her family’s old rustic house, which she, her father John (Adam Trese) and uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are trying to clear out prior to selling it. The place is all boarded up and the electricity is out, which means that they have to stumble around the cluttered rooms, hallways and basement carrying candles or lanterns.
Complications ensue when Sophia (Julie Taylor Rose), a strange childhood friend of Sarah, shows up, and odd noises occur in the house. And when John goes off to investigate, he disappears, only to turn up later unconscious with a head wound. Peter, who’s driven off for a bit on some errand, returns to find Sarah terrified over the ghostly appearance of a man (Adam Barnett) and a little girl (Haley Murphy)—apparently violent squatters. But when he goes off to confront them with a gun, he’s waylaid as well, leaving the poor girl alone.
This sounds like nothing more than the most recent variant of the by-now ultra-familiar home invasion scenario, but rest assured that Gustavo Hernandez, on whose Uruguayan film Lau has based her script, isn’t interested in anything so mundane. Though it wouldn’t be fair to be too specific, suffice it to say that he introduces a last-act twist that turns the picture into a brooding psychological drama dealing with issues of contemporary importance. Of course, the change requires us to accept that we’ve been lied to by the images we’ve seen unfolding before us in supposedly real time, or at least to reinterpret them as representing the perspective of a mind other than our own. But however the climax is understood, most viewers will find it a disappointing dramatic answer to the questions the movie had posed.
“Silent House” does have one strong element in Olsen, who follows up her impressive turn in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” with a vigorous performance made all the more remarkable by the fact that she’s on screen virtually non-stop and is saddled with much of the bland, prosaic dialogue characteristic of the screenplay. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is amateurish, reciting their lines as though reading them from a teleprompter. But they were probably more concerned with hitting their marks on time than much else.
To be fair, there are a few chilling moments in “Silent House,” but they’re of the ordinary genre “gotcha” variety—sudden noises, doors bursting open, figures suddenly appearing from off frame (often the reflections of characters in mirrors, which becomes a motif early on). And ultimately the single-shot gimmick and spuriously significant concluding twist can’t disguise that it’s a pretty tired piece of work. No “Paranormal Activity” here, folks.