In 2003, husband and wife team Laura Lau and Chris Kentis made a splash (ha!) with their low-budget DYI thriller Open Water. Nearly ten years later, they’ve come to us with their newest work, Silent House.
Silent House is the rapid American remake of a 2010 Spanish-language Uruguayan film (unsurprisingly titled La Casa Muda) that did fairly well in the festival circuit, bringing it to the attention of producer Agnes Mentre, and thus into the hands of Lau/Kentis.
What was so special about La Casa Muda was that it appeared to be shot as a continuous take. While this is not actually accurate– the movie was shot over several takes cleverly edited together, the surprising and difficult choice in style gave something different to the movie that caught the notice of audiences.
However, this might have caused a problem with the style overwhelming the plot, not simply in terms of audience attention, but also in how limited it is in terms of establishing the traditional filmic narrative we’ve grown acclimated to. More on that in a moment.
Plot-wise, this movie centers on the “true events” that took place in an isolated, semi-abandoned house that a young girl, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), her father (Adam Trese), and her uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are trying to fix up for sale.
After basic character introductions and a tiff over home repairs between Sarah’s father and uncle that causes the latter to storm off in a fit of anger, Sarah ends up exploring the house, unable to find her father, and hearing unnerving noises that hint that she might have unwelcome company.
Without giving the plot away, most of the rest of the movie is a good deal of running, hyperventilating, and the discovery of somewhat disturbing rooms in the basement.
Shifting away from the plot so as not to pepper this article with spoilers, let’s go back to the decision to shoot this 88 minute film in such a way as to resemble one continuous take.
This obviously wasn’t an easy project. It was stressful simply listening to Lau and Kentis talk about the struggles of everyone meeting their queues at the press conference, as many of the effects were practical (meaning no CGI) and a single half-second mis-step could result in an entire shot being ruined.
There was also a matter of the camera choreography. Lau and Kentis selected Igor Martinovic, whose work you might know from Man on Wire, as their Director of Photography. It was absolutely fascinating to read the press notes on how Olsen and Martinovic had to somewhat sync to each other’s movements as he followed her through the house.
My favorite quote from the press notes, something that I felt really summed up the effort that went into filming this film came from Kentis while talking on a scene where Olsen leaves the house and gets into a car. “Two camera operators were involved in that scene and the choreography was all about preparation. They were running wth the camera and passing the camera in and out of the car and from the front of the car to back and our A.D. crew had to be totally on the ball with cues because everything had to happen at exact moments.”
While the directors likely don’t want you watching this movie just for the technical aspects– which is quite understandable, it’s something that’s amazing to watch and attempt to understand the effort that had to go into such a movie.
It also gives you an insight into how we make and watch movies. So much character development and storyline comes from little side shots that this movie isn’t really allowed. We never leave Olsen’s side which, while it adds to the feelings of being trapped that the movie encourages, it gives a stark contrast to the way we currently use film to tell stories.
In a way, this movie challenges the way we define reality through film. This film is infinitely more “real” of an experience than one where we’re jumping from person to person, place to place. There’s no b-footage filling our gaps of knowledge, setting the scene.
There are so many complex visual layers to the average Hollywood film that it’s somewhat unsettling to see a movie that is so stripped down, not just visually, but in the amount of information that it gives the audience. We see what Sarah sees, we go where Sarah goes– the usual omniscience of the audience is lost giving, while not a totally new experience, something we haven’t seen in a long while.
Silent House opens in theaters on March 9th.