With Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, Adam Barnett. Written by Laura Lau. Directed by Chris Kentis, Laura Lau. Rated R (for disturbing violent content and terror). 85 minutes.
When filmmakers experiment with unusual ways of telling a story, they usually end up discovering that there’s a reason movies aren’t made that way. In 1947, Robert Montgomery adapted Raymond Chandler’s “The Lady In The Lake,” in which the camera stood in for the main character for much of the film. The following year, Alfred Hitchcock made “Rope,” a film that appeared to be done in a single take. However, since cameras of the time could only hold ten minutes worth of film, he had to employ certain tricks to cover the changeovers. In 2000, Mike Figgis offered us “Timecode,” in which a complex story was told in realtime through four images appearing on screen simultaneously. None of these directors chose to repeat their experiments.
With SILENT HOUSE, directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, remaking a 2010 film from Uruguay, take advantage of the new cinematic technologies to tell their story in one continuous shot. Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and her father John (Adam Trese) are cleaning up a remote family property. As they go through the boarded up lakeside house, Sarah sees and hears strange things. Are there other people in the house?
Her father is subsequently attacked and injured. A frightened Sarah manages to escape and finds her Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), who brings her back to find her father. Eventually, the mystery is solved, including some of the odd things that happen along the way, like both father and uncle discovering Polaroid snapshots that they quickly hide, insisting they are of no importance at all. As you might guess, they are part of the key to the whole mystery.
The problem with “Silent House” is precisely the same problem as with the other films cited. The “single shot” is a gimmick that is of interest to film buffs, but ultimately handcuffs these filmmakers. Pulling off the film in a single shot means the directors must plan out the incredibly complicated choreography of the film’s action. It also means that they have deprived themselves of one of the key tools of the filmmaking process: the ability to edit, thereby juxtaposing images for maximum impact. It’s like the author of a novel planning out the whole novel and then writing and publishing a first draft that was crafted non-stop and without correction.
There are certainly sequences where the technique is useful and effective. Likewise, there are moments when it’s painful to watch, such as a blurry, out of focus “escape” scene. Much of the film is shot in close-up, but rather than using the time to develop characters with whom we might empathize, what you will most likely to remember is Olsen’s lovely complexion. If you’re so inclined you may also notice the camera threatens to rush into her low cut shirt, particularly when she bends over. What you will not get a chance to appreciate is Olsen’s acting chops, which were widely praised in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
“Silent House” is an interesting cinematic exercise and a not very interesting thriller. As with “The Lady In The Lake,” “Rope,” and “Timecode,” your reaction after seeing it will likely be, “Aha – that’s why they don’t make movies this way.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.