Two films starring Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley, premiered on 21 January, 2011, at the Sundance Film Festival. One of these was Martha Marcy May Marlene, and it was so buzzed-about and well-regarded that it was snatched up and given a nice awards-baiting berth and gifted by Fox Searchlight with a prestigious "You must encounter this astounding new actress, Elizabeth Olsen, who will redefine her generation" ad campaign. The other was Silent House, and it was shoveled into theaters over a year later by Open Road Films and Liddell Entertainment as counter-programming on what was meant to be the first major blockbuster weekend of 2012. Whatever feelings one has about Marmarmaymar - I didn't like it very much - this can only be regarded as a hugely telling situation: one of the films is everything that American indies can be at their most praiseworthy and self-confident, and the other is a fucking wreck that probably only got distribution in the first place because of its nascent star and pushy "lookatme!" gimmick. I guess a sufficiently hopeful viewer could counter that maybe Silent House was just too boldly idiosyncratic to make the distributor feel comfortable, but that is not, in fact the case. It is a fucking wreck, and one of the most conceptually dishonest American films I've seen in ages. I don't know if the 2010 Uruguayan original, La casa muda, is similarly broken, but shame on married filmmaking team Chris Kentis & Laura Lau for thinking they could fix it if such was the case.

(You may recall Kentis & Lau from the 2004 shark movie Open Water, and if you are like me, you remember them for this reason with a hatred bordering on psychosis).

Olsen plays Sarah, a young woman helping her father, John (Adam Trese), and uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), rehab the old family home out in the woods, right by a lake; it has been uninhabited for ages, and left in pretty bad shape by a variety of vandals and squatters, and before it can be sold, it has to be fixed pretty much head to toe. One of the side effects of this process is that every last window has been boarded up, making the inside of the house as dark as midnight even in the late afternoon hours when it opens; add in the general sense of rot over everything, and we have a film that's pretty long on threatening atmosphere even before the arrival of Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), who claims to be a friend of Sarah's from childhood, though Sarah can't quite manage to place her; after a few cryptic comments, Sophia wanders back to the neighborhood from whence she came, and we are quite ready to expect something unpleasant to happen. It does, in the form of a loud thump that precedes John's disappearance, whereupon Sarah becomes aware that a man (the barely-seen Adam Barnett) is in the house, with something unpleasant on his mind.

Silent House is kind of special, in that there are two entirely different problems with it, both of which would be sufficient to scuttle the whole project: one is narrative, the other is formal. I can't discuss the narrative problem without spoiling the hell out of the movie, so I shall postpone that; in the meantime, there is the formal problem, which is that Silent House is meant to look like a single take lasting for the 80-ish minutes the film runs without credits, moving from the rocky shore of the lake into the house from basement to third-story attic in one uninterrupted flow. It's faked; this is Rope, not Russian Ark. But that's not the problem (actually, the execution is pretty phenomenal). What is the problem, is that this gimmick is just that, a gimmick, with no apparent reason to exist other than because it makes people want to see the movie who wouldn't otherwise. Seriously, even in Rope, which I personally regard as one of Alfred Hitchock's least-successful movies, the point of the faux-single take can be sussed out with enough work. If the same is true of Silent House, I haven't been tipped to it.

Even this is mostly forgivable - I say "mostly" because such a bold gesture really does need to justify itself if it's not going to end up a distraction or annoyance - but there is a second problem with it here, which is that it does things to POV and our identification with Olsen's character that the movie cannot begin to recover from. In essence, the longer the camera moves around without a break, the more we perceive it as a separate character, and this becomes a particularly pronounced truth in Silent House in moments when Sarah runs, which she does quite often. It is a horror film, after all. And while a normal horror film deals with a quick-moving heroine by cutting ahead of her when she gets too far away, the gimmick here forbids that, which means that we are, in effect, chasing her; we are turning into the murderous psycho of the piece. That might be worth exploring, but neither Kentis nor Lau see fit to explore it very much; and that leaves behind the issue of what happens to handheld video when the cinemtographer (in this case, Igor Martinovic) is made to break into a run. Specifically, it looks horrible, like the worst excesses of the worst shakycam film you've ever seen magnified and exaggerated and turned into a mean-spirited insult against the art of the moving camera and the long take as practiced by masters from Jean Renoir to Alfonso CuarΓ³n. Beyond this, they certainly don't seem to be aware of what a single take narrative implies about realism and physicality; the sound design is too artificial and the music score too pronounced to fit in with the tactility the visuals promise, and the whole thing hangs together not at all.

The one and only thing that might actually work is that the physical location - the silent house itself - can be given an extra sense of presence from this; alternately, the filmmakers can subvert our expectations for such presence, which is what Kentis and Lau end up doing. The physical geography of the house is inscrutable, partially because there is, in fact, hidden editing, and partially because of the loosey-goosey camerawork. I was initially prepared to cite this as one of the many things I hated, but there proves to be a justification, and here I must pause.

It's not possible to really delve into Silent House without a huge SPOILER ALERT for the rest of this paragraph, though since I can't bring myself to suggest the film to anyone but a masochist, I don't know why I care. In the end, we find out that Sarah was sexually abused in childhood by her father and uncle, that Sophia was the imaginary friend she created to pour her terrible feelings into, and implicitly, that returning to the scene of this crime caused her so much pain that it roused her forgotten memories and led her on a killing spree - yes, there proves to be no killer at all, just Sarah's hallucinations to keep her emotionally safe from the violence she does to her abusers. As twist endings go, it's a remarkable combination of the obvious - almost the first thing Peter does is regard Sarah with an appraising remark about how much she's grown up, using a voice that unmistakably says "Hey Olsen, nice tits", and from here on out we can pretty easily pick up all the "subtle" hints about the abuse - and the hugely, almost incomprehensibly tasteless. It does terrible things to the already muddy issue of the viewer's POV; implicating the presumptive male gaze in the torment of the female hero-victim is one thing, but implicating us in the sexual abuse of a child is another thing entirely. The one thing it does do in the film's favor is answer some of the maddening questions about things that don't make sense in the early going, such as the lack of continuity in the location (which thereby becomes an extension of Sarah's self-confusion); but even then, a twist ending chiefly useful for correcting the flaws of the rest of the film doesn't, by itself, make those flaws any easier going down. SPOILERS END

Between that plot, and the film's formal mess, there was no redeeming Silent House; in that regard, its relative feebleness as a scary movie hardly registers, although the first 30 minutes offer some nice brooding atmosphere. Olsen is pretty damn good, and the movie might even be a better showcase for her talent than Martha Marcy May Marlene - that role was so damn showy that anyone could have stood out there, but here the actress has to shoulder a movie collapsing all around her, and she does it well. Just about the only thing that works in the movie is her increasingly breathless, paranoid running about - the single greatest moment in the film finds Sarah under a table, trying not to scream, and here the jagged handheld camera works for once, shaking along with Olsen's face as she contorts and winces and forces herself to remain quiet. It's the only point where mood and aesthetic fit together, the one time that the filmmakers demonstrate a keen idea of what long takes in horror films can be used for. It's a single moment of light in a bleak stretch of clumsy execution of flimsy ideas in storytelling, character psychology, and visual style; Olsen and the general spookiness of the house keep it from bottoming out, but only just, and what's aggravating isn't just that this is a grimly unimpressive house invasion thriller, but that it marries this tedious genre work to an all-encompassing ignorance of cinematic language.

3/10