The Silencing is yet another atmospheric but hollow small-town whodunit with a flawed sense of narrative.
The Silencing opens with a haunting shot. The body of a teenage girl floats downstream in a river through the woods. Her jacket is bright orange, making her look like a speck of colour drifting through – and being consumed by – a grayscale painting. A serial killer is on the loose. The gloomy setting is ironically a Wildlife Sanctuary, owned by an alcoholic named Rayburn Swanson (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), whose own daughter went missing five years ago. The girl never liked his hunting, so not unlike any self-respecting ‘guilty-brooding’ protagonist, he’s now reformed, with a surveillance system set up in his remote cabin to locate other errant hunters. She didn’t like his drinking either – in fact she disappeared from his truck when he stopped to buy booze – but the man is still drinking. Because, you see, if he had given up drinking too, how would the film depict a father’s closure at the end of a twisty whodunit? The bottle is cinema’s traditional trope for small-town character transformation, and The Silencing is anything but silent about this.
Within the first twenty minutes of the film, a bunch of the town’s mysterious-but-not-too-mysterious people are introduced. There are the primary faces: the new Sheriff (Annabelle Wallis), the Sheriff’s troubled brother (Hero Fiennes Tiffin; the actor’s name is almost a spoiler), Rayburn’s pregnant ex-wife, the ex-wife’s new husband who’s also a cop. And the secondary faces: two illegal hunters, a doctor, a store owner and, last but not least, Rayburn’s dog named Thor. If you’ve seen enough atmospheric (with a capital “a”) crime thrillers, you know that one of these locals is the killer with questionable motives. Can this be cinema’s first canine marauder? Who knows? Director Robin Pront sets it up well. But that’s where the intrigue ends.
The Silencing then descends into a series of familiar red herrings, forest set pieces, strange u-turns and last-moment revelations. For one, the killer hunts for his/her prey with a bow and arrow in a Big Foot-style hairy creature suit (The Village did it better), which is purely for dramatic effect and has absolutely nothing to do with who the person eventually turns out to be. The narrative also lacks a sense of rhythm and time – there’s an immediacy to events that does not sync with the bigger picture. For instance, at one point, we see Woodburn involved in an urgent confrontation with the killer, but this is inter-cut with the Sheriff following clues across town and interrogating people in slow-burning true-crime fashion. The stakes of a life-or-death experience are at odds with the peripheral investigation. When it culminates in a shootout at a cabin, the script makes a decision that it cannot take back. It pretends to reveal the identity of the killer, but with half the film left, it’s quite obvious that there’s more. The film’s attempt to clean up its misdirection is terribly amateur – one character is shot in the chest but recovers nearly overnight, while the shooter is magically forgiven for making a grave mistake. It’s all very messy, and by the time the real climax arrives, the viewer has likely lost trust in a film that refuses to understand the emotional complexity of a single character.
Also, a word about the killer’s motive: too corny. It’s 2022, and it’s been nearly a decade of long-form OTT true-crime shows. Viewers have been exposed to all sorts of shadowy and murky stories from all parts of the globe. The texture of a film – an “overcast” sky, a remote heartland town, a wasted hero – can’t be used as a front for copout twists anymore. 90 minutes is not enough for the film to be immersive and world-building-ish either, so relying purely on the final ten minutes is lazy storytelling. And even if you’re going to hit us with that revelation, at least make it sound good. Mare of Easttown and Broadchurch will not be pleased.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, better known as Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister, seems to be the go-to rugged-faced performer for wilderness thrillers. His character in The Silencing feels like a spiritual extension of the one from his historical survival drama Against the Ice. It’s only a matter of time before the internet coughs up a bad-weather gif (or meme) of a wounded Coster-Waldau breathing hard and fighting the elements. As Rayburn, he is severely limited by an underwritten character and premise. Playing an alcoholic-recluse-hunter-father-survivor sounds loaded, but the modern landscape of template-driven rural thrillers ensures that the role drowns like a speck of fleeting colour in a grayscale painting: an image that’s worth a thousand (recycled) words.
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