'Silent House,' Olsen Are Golden
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
A remake of "La Casa Muda," Uruguay's 2010 Oscar nominee for foreign language film, "Silent House" surpasses its source thanks to Elizabeth Olsen's powerful performance and Igor Martinovic's strikingly imaginative camerawork. Written and directed by husband-and-wife duo Chris Kentis and Laura Lau ("Open Water"), "House" opens on a small figure hunched atop a lakeside rock. From a God's-eye POV, the camera lowers to follow Sarah (Olsen) across a field to an old house, where her father drives up as though conjured by her very presence.
Could be that our girl never leaves that rock, but stays still to loose the single, unbroken, real-time camera movement that comprises "Silent House." That movement unreels a young woman's dream or fantasy, one long slip-slide from normalcy into nightmare and out again. (There are subliminal cuts somewhere in "Silent House." Knock yourself out looking for them. The rest of us will go with the movie's very scary flow.)
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Sarah, her father (Adam Trese) and her uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are at the deteriorating, vandalized summer place to spruce it up before putting it on the market. From the get-go, the two men, looking only a tad older than Sarah, verge on cartoonish versions of fatherly fondness and fraternal one-upmanship. They seem to occupy a plane separate from Sarah's, who's strangely serene, as though she were watching an old home movie. We don't feel that dad is simply in another part of the house when our girl wanders off on her own -- he simply doesn't exist anymore, though it's sure that something menaces her just beyond the lantern's wavering light.
When a childhood friend she can't quite recall turns up, Sarah doesn't invite her in -- the two cycle in and out of focus as they chat on the porch. Before biking off, the dark-haired visitor, so vivid in contrast to Sarah's wan distraction, assures her that there are some things that just can't be forgotten.
Fruitless to read the movie dead-literally, as a generic haunted house thriller. This is head-trip territory: a mutable and hallucinatory "House," with boarded-up windows, locked doors, punctured basement walls, maze-like interior, menacing sounds and shadows. In her theater in the round, Sarah's beleaguered imagination both stages and stars in a Greek tragedy of childhood violation and adult vengeance. "Silent House" is best watched as Sarah's "movie" -- filmed partly from memory, partly in a Now struggling to come into focus.
Though it falls short of Radha Bharadwaj's brilliantly conceived "Closet Land," this grabby heroine's journey works similar tropes: a woman forced to return to a nightmarishly constrained space, the terrifying trap where ogres once caught and devoured innocence; her descent into primal terror to confront and destroy monsters; and finally, unshackled from the past, the chance to grow up whole.
The long journey through Sarah's "house" is punctuated by jump-out-of-your-skin scares, different from the mechanical jabs that keep you twitching in something like "The Woman in Black." (Toward the end, the film's scare tactics do take a turn toward the conventionally lurid.) A beer bottle rolling across the floor, popping flashbulbs, crimson staining a mattress, someone big and heavy thumping down the hall toward a little girl's hidey-hole -- these are memory mines, exploding in Sarah's psyche, leading her out of amnesia toward lacerating epiphany. She's half-sister to Hitchcock's Marnie, panicked by red alerts from a childhood nightmare.
Like the house's punctured walls, this kid's got "holes in her head," dark places where past horror hides. Crouched, panting, under a pool table like a paralyzed child, Sarah uses a Polaroid camera to light up the room -- and her tormentors -- in sporadic bursts. Like a series of body blows, pitch black (who's lurking?) alternates with momentary strobes of light, too brief to illuminate what we're aching to see.
Looking to obtain photographic evidence of her ghosts, she glimpses a little girl's legs spread wide over the edge of the table, exposed to a mysterious cameraman's ravishing gaze. But for a long time, Sarah remains of two minds, unable -- unwilling -- to face up to who or what truly represents haven and harm in this house of pain. That knowledge is so terrible, so devastating, it takes a doppelganger to get her there.
Olsen was heartbreaking as a possessed soul in "Martha Marcy May Marlene." So too in "House": We don't so much watch this expressive actress's fear and suffering during Sarah's hellish journey as viscerally share it. Her screams, gasps, sobs aren't obligatory "slasher" sound effects; they get inside our heads, as though we too were dreaming, desperate to discover the source of a child's weeping somewhere in the dark. For 88 minutes, Olsen rivets our attention, and the camera's, so fiercely it verges on unbearable. "Silent House" is her movie.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.