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Silent House (2012)

by Steve Habrat

The new horror film Silent House has been marketed as a single shot film that never cuts and that is told in real time. The marketing team could have also sold the movie as the horror film that is constantly allowing viewers a glimpse down star Elizabeth Olsen’s shirt. It seriously got to a point where it had to be intentional the way her cleavage was ALWAYS hanging out. Oh well, no amount of cleavage was going to save Silent House, which is rotten from the start, slightly redeems itself in the middle, and then violently crashes and burns due to a last act twist that is downright insulting. The truth is, Silent House is just one big experiment, one for directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau to brag how they made a film that is a single shot with no cuts. Well, I’m here to tell you that there are several masked cuts in the film (and they really are quite obvious), but there are a handful of drawn out sequences where the actors are demanded to actually act. It’s a shame really, because no one really possesses any true talent in Silent House. However, I can’t be too hard on Olsen, who does the best with what she is given, but the directors are more concerned with pulling off a gimmick rather than capturing truly fine acting.

Silent House follows Sarah (Played by Olsen), a young woman who is staying at a lakeside home with her father John (Played by Adam Trese). Sarah and John are attempting to renovate the home along with her suspicious Uncle Peter (Played by Eric Sheffer Stevens) so they can eventually sell it. Sarah starts hearing strange noises coming from the upstairs and begs her father to go up and investigate. While investigating, Sarah hears her father get attacked and then finds him unconscious with a nasty gash on his head. Sarah begins trying to figure out a way out of the house and getting help for her injured father, all while avoiding a strange presence in the home that has set its sights on Sarah.

The premise for Silent House is rather simple, but the big twist at the end wrestles with some difficult and disturbing subject matter that seems oddly out of place for a film like this. The problem is that the filmmakers have mishandled their subject matter, assuming we will be shaken to our core over what the film is tackling. They completely forgot to add terror to the film itself. Silent House quickly resorts to loud bangs, music blasts, and shadowy figures lurking in the distant background, techniques that evoke more yawns than jumps. The subject also takes a back seat to the experiment the filmmakers are trying so desperately to pull off. This is what makes Silent House such a disappointment, because when the filmmakers pull the rug out from under us, we are more flabbergasted by how preposterous the twist is over the horrifying nature of what has been going on. It truly is so implausible, I can’t believe the filmmakers would ask us to suspend that level of disbelief.

Once you have recovered from the half-assed twist, you’ll find yourself slowly aghast by the acting within the film. Elizabeth Olsen does the best job she can with what she is given here, so I can’t really criticize her too much. The acting work from Adam Trese and Eric Sheffer Stevens is another story entirely. There is nothing instinctive in their performances, both of which are so forced and unbelievable they come off almost robotic. The argument could be made that the actors are all trying to work choreography into their performances and a lot of choreography at that. Every move needs to be perfectly timed with a project like this, something that would weigh heavy on their minds. Sadly, the performances, along with the subject matter, get lost in the gimmick. There is also a brief (Thank God!) appearance by Julia Taylor Ross as Sophia, Sarah’s childhood pal who she barely recognizes at first when she unexpectedly drops by the house. Ross suffers from the same mangling of choreography and performance, seeming just as scripted as Trese and Stevens.

So what of Olsen? Well, Olsen isn’t as stilted as her costars, moving along much more benignly than everyone else. All that Kentis and Lau ask of her is to skulk around the dimly lit set and look horrified, uneasy, cry, and then scream out when she hears a footstep. It’s a relief that she is good at it! In a way, I’d like to see more out of Olsen, a young actress who I think is capable of more than starring in delusional teen horror films. Her true talent shows in the last act when she confronts the twist, a point where she gets to open up and show a bit of range and personality. I truly cannot image what kind of an experience Silent House would be if she didn’t come through with her part, even if that part is a cliché in a scarf.

Silent House shows moments where things could have gotten on track and started moving smoothly. There is a fifteen-minute stretch in the middle, culminating in Sarah using a Polaroid camera as a source of light to move through the darkened home, where things move up from humdrum to mildly exciting. The rest of this watered down experiment is the same old things-go-bump-in-the-dark exercise that is far from innovative. Yet the film never creates an effective atmosphere and it is completely inept in how to build tension and then serving up a satisfying pay-off. Instead, we get a second-rate shadowy antagonist, painfully tacky symbolism, and inane hallucinatory spurts before the filmmakers attempt their “gotcha” moment. For all the hype the people behind Silent House built to suck audiences in, the aspect you will actually remember is how the camera was always awkwardly and creepily aimed down Olsen’s shirt.

Grade: D+ 

The Hurt Locker (2009)

by Steve Habrat

Despite what you may think of the Academy Awards, I think most who saw Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film The Hurt Locker can agree that it was indeed the best film of 2009. Paranoid and frantic while taking absolutely no stance on the Iraq War, Bigelow masterfully sculpts a beast of a film, leaving us just as shaken up as one of the soldiers is after a bomb blast. It’s tough to wrap your head around the idea that a film dealing with a war that was as unpopular as the Iraq War would have no comments about the war itself. Instead, this is a boys being boys film, one where Bigelow presents three radical personalities (one timid, one by the books, and one who relentlessly lives on the edge), puts them in a bomb suit, and shakes them up violently to see what makes them tick. The film begins with the quote “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”. The Hurt Locker turns out to be more than just a psychological study of the toll urban warfare takes on a soldier, but is also a movie about the crippling addiction of pushing the envelop and tempting death.

The Hurt Locker begins in 2004, just shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. After the grisly death of Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Played by Guy Pearce), the reckless and testy Sergeant First Class William James (Played by Jeremy Renner) comes in to take his place as a bomb diffuser. James joins Sergeant JT Sanborn (Played by Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Played by Brian Geraghty) and the group sets out on a string of missions including suicide bombers, car bombs, roadside bombs, etc. Sanborn and Eldridge try to keep their small group together and guarded where anything and anyone can become a threat. As James relentlessly tests the patience of Sanborn and Eldridge with his irresponsible behavior, Sanborn and Eldridge begin to fear for their own safety as well as begin to entertain ideas of finding a way to get rid of James. James, on the other hand, gets a thrill out of tempting death and his addiction to the “rush of battle” has caused him to become an outsider when playing the role of civilian.

Bigelow shies away from using familiar faces in her film, allowing the soldiers to seem like actual soldiers serving a tour of duty rather than a bunch of pampered actors sipping bottled Fiji water. This approach gives The Hurt Locker a heavy does of realism and randomness that can’t be matched by many other war films. Her fidgety camera that will unexpectedly zoom in on possible threats adds another layer of anxiety to the experience. Anyone can die at any second and Bigelow doesn’t want you to escape that nail biting dread. Pearce was the only recognizable actor in The Hurt Locker and he is knocked off in the first ten minutes of the film. Hell, if Pearce can get it, than any of these soldiers can bite the dust at any time! The Hurt Locker posses a documentary feeling throughout the course of its runtime, sometimes making you forget that you’re watching a movie. When snipers open fire on the group in one particular scene, you are practically ducking behind your coach and hugging the ground for dear life. Every battle doesn’t descend into quick cut gunfights, but rather embraces drawn out tension mixed with anticipatory trepidation of where the threat will come from next. Can you trust that man holding that cell phone? Is that car loaded with explosives? Are the citizens watching from their windows carrying a detonator or gun?

The Hurt Lockers presents three radical forms of the soldier. Eldridge represents the skittish soldier who fears death above all else, where every day could be his last. Sanborn is the by the books man who views his duty as just another day on the job. James is the one addicted to the “rush of battle” and views war as a drug. He can’t escape the thrill of it. Each performance is heavy and the relationship between the three main characters is never firing on all cylinders. Very rarely do they all click and work hand-in-hand, when they do they are alarmingly efficient. The most complexity lies in James, who cares more about the corpse of a boy who is currently having his guts ripped out and having them replaced with explosives over his own child back on American shores. Rarely does he talk about his wife, only when he is probed and had a little to drink. He struts towards bombs with his chin and helmet held high, loving every step he takes towards possible death. When he finds a bomb that could wipe out a large area, he rips off his bomb suit and goes about disarming the bomb comfortably. If it blows up, the suit won’t save him. But you have to wonder if he would really care if it did blow up. James also symbolically serves as the bottle that Eldridge and Sanborn are dropped into. When a rush shakes up James, the worst and the weakest points emerge from Sanborn and Eldrige

There is never a down moment in The Hurt Locker, one that doesn’t enthrall and hold your eyes to the screen. From the directing all the way to the script, the film is absolutely perfect, an atypical accomplishment for any film that makes its way out of Hollywood. The film opened the eyes of mainstream audiences to the talents of Jeremy Renner, who is finally becoming a household name. I firmly believe that The Hurt Locker is an instant classic, a film that will join the ranks of classics like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. In fact, the movie stills impacts me every time I see it, leaving a crater in stomach. It is a film I will never forget seeing in theaters for the first time and walking out of absolutely silent, verbally paralyzed by the sheer intensity of it. If you have never seen The Hurt Locker before, it may be wise to experience it with someone who already did just so they can have 911 ready. Why? Because you may pass out from holding your breath.

Grade: A+

The Hurt Locker is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.