Published Mar 08, 2012Much like Laura Lau and Chris Kentis's last film, Open Water, which was set almost entirely in a single location in the middle of the ocean, Silent House is defined by a gimmick or narrative conceit. Similarly, it exploits a claustrophobic locale to generate the feeling of anxiety-inducing helplessness, only here the reliance is on a single (seemingly) unbroken shot to generate a similar dynamic of isolation within a boarded up cottage.
From the moment that Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) enters her family cottage with her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) to pack it up in preparation to sell it, we follow her every move through the dark, boarded-up house in real time. And in removing stylization, establishing shots and tension-relieving edits, the audience is forced to experience the perspective of the imperilled Sarah, whose minor concern escalates to full distress after weird noises turn to thunderous thuds and she finds herself locked in a dark, old house.
While this immersive and voyeuristic perspective could be painful in the hands of a less capable actress, Elizabeth Olsen (who previously demonstrated some acting chops in Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene) sells the situation entirely, giving an exhausting performance as a terrified woman acting on survival instinct while trying to remain composed enough to make rational decisions. What's unfortunate is that her male counterparts don't have quite as much range, doling out their generic, sarcastic dialogue with the same roundabout, singsong-y tedium of an amateur unfamiliar with analyzing a scene.
The other issue is that of characterizations, or lack there of, which is inevitable given the central narrative device, since we're unable to establish much about Sarah beyond her inherent friendliness and her decision to drink during the daytime. She does mention something about not liking school, which gives us a hint at something darker or less pristine than her affable presentation suggests.
Arguably, this limited definition of character reinforces the purveying tone of the film, wherein we experience the fear of someone dealing with a potential home invader or haunted house. Although within this vacuum of justification comes the rational audience dismissal of identification when the surreal third act comes into play just after the Polaroid camera comes out, acting as a terrifying jump scare light source.
While this American remake of the similarly titled Uruguayan indie horror works far better than other recent single-take endeavours like Time Code or Russian Ark, it's not without flaws. Of course, knowing this, the film would have blended in with any number of standard issue low budget horrors without the very narrative conceit that creates said flaws, making it somewhat of a self-imposed, but often effective, conundrum. (eOne)