Familiar elements can be clichéd but also useful. Emphasize a particular trope too much and it becomes tired and tedious. Use a trope carefully, especially when connected to other tropes within a wider framework, and the various pieces can add up to a satisfying whole. The key aspect here is judicious treatment, ensuring that the various tropes are not there for their own sake, but supportive of the whole.
The Silencing, a mystery horror-thriller directed by Robin Pront and written by Micah Ranum, incorporates such tropes as rugged men, emotional women, monstrous figures, alcoholism and sinister music. List them like this and the film reads as familiar territory that the seasoned or indeed prejudiced viewer might not be tempted by. But Pront weaves together a story of questions and enigmas with jump scares and tense set pieces to deliver a film that is, while not terribly surprising, nonetheless effective.
One of the most compelling elements of The Silencing is its setting, the remote town of Echo Falls. Set in northern Minnesota (though filmed in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada), the opening shots of rolling hills, extensive forest and river rapids quickly establish a sense of place. Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse captures sweeping shots of this wilderness, initially evoking a sense of romance and beauty. However, the opening bars of Brooke and Will Blair’s score quickly strike an ominous note. As the camera moves closer to the river, the viewer discerns a body being carried along by the current, further emphasizing a journey into dangerous territory. Ironically, the next scene informs us that we are in a wildlife sanctuary, the caretaker of which, Rayburn Swanson (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Oblivion”) is the first familiar element that we meet, a burly, no-nonsense man of the world who forcefully persuades two would-be hunters to leave the sanctuary.
Rayburn is an effectively grizzled and rugged outdoorsman. Coster-Waldau’s imposing physique and granite features dominate the screen, and Rayburn is a man of few words but many an impassioned grunt. Reminiscent of Hugh Jackman’s “Logan” as well as Jeremy Renner’s Cory Lambert in “Wind River,” Rayburn is a former hunter and skilled tracker, expert woodsman and very capable. Complete with loyal hound (named Thor, no less), he grimaces his way through injuries, patches up his own wounds and self-medicates with whiskey. And (of course) his family is broken, the sanctuary named after his daughter Grace who went missing five years previously. Estranged from his ex-wife Debbie (Melanie Scrofano, “Ready or Not”), who is now involved with his former friend Blackhawk (Zahn McClarnon, “Doctor Sleep”), Rayburn is trapped in the denial stage of grief, printing out missing person flyers of Grace that he puts up around town. His days are spent surveying the sanctuary through a network of surveillance cameras, perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of Grace. While she does not appear, he certainly sees other things that prove important.
Rayburn’s arc is half of the film. The other half concerns Alice Gustafson (Annabelle Wallis, “Tag”), Sheriff of Echo Falls County. A local who left after losing her parents, then returned and was only recently elected to sheriff, Alice juggles the demands of her profession with caring for her younger brother Brookes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”). Brookes is deeply troubled for reasons that become evident as the film progresses, and tension is evident between Alice’s professional and personal responsibilities. At key points in the film, Alice is presented as overly emotional which is an unfortunate gender stereotype. That said, Alice also fulfills the role of the state typically assigned to male characters, so her representation of law and order contrasts with Rayburn’s rugged masculinity and preference for natural justice. Indeed, the two characters illustrate a key tension of the town as a whole, crossing the borders between civilization and wilderness.
A further border in the film relates to its social setting which emphasizes privilege and deprivation. Northern Minnesota includes various Native American reservations, and such a reservation is prominent in The Silencing. Sheriff Gustafson and Officer Blackhawk clash over jurisdiction, and the film pays some (fleeting) attention to the condition of contemporary Native Americans. One of the most underprivileged ethnicities in the United States, Native Americans suffer from a disproportionately high level of unemployment, poverty and addiction. The Silencing references this in passing, with a disused sawmill on the reservation occupied by people with seemingly nowhere better to go. The film does not delve into these social problems or use them as part of its thematic framework, unlike the aforementioned “Wind River” or “Drunktown’s Finest,” which is unfortunate because social and anthropological detail can make for a compelling backdrop in crime dramas. Here, the presence of Native Americans as a deprived social group seems little more than tokenistic, poorly integrated into the film’s overall horror-thriller milieu.
Nonetheless, within this milieu, The Silencing offers a highly effective tone and atmosphere. The appearance of a figure in mask and camouflage gear wielding spears is startling and alarming, especially in the forest. Narrow tree trunks wreathed in mist create an eerie image, to quote William Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” like “so many horrid ghosts.” Rayburn and the camouflaged figure, as well as others, move through this forest in a shifting dynamic of predator and prey. The camouflaged figure is a strange combination of human and inhuman, modern and traditional elements, making it uncanny and therefore unnerving. Also unnerving are some tense set pieces. Whether shooting in expansive exteriors or narrow interiors, Pront, Dacosse and editor Alain Dessauvage make great use of shadow and light. When violence occurs, it is graphic and visceral, captured in long shot with prolonged takes rather than rapid cutting. This aesthetic de-glamorizes the violence, making it nasty and repellent, and in the earlier stages of the film disturbingly senseless. In its final act, the film’s menace starts to unravel as explanations are offered and references (especially to “Psycho,” much like “The Host”) become more heavy-handed. As is often the case with psychological horror, what you don’t know is more unsettling.
Much like Denis Villenueve’s “Prisoners,” which offers a similarly dour visual and emotional tone, The Silencing is ominous and disturbing for much of its runtime, but falls apart somewhat in its final act. However, it is less jarring because of its continued emphasis on character dynamics rather than the greater ambitions of “Prisoners.” As a result, The Silencing is simultaneously less impressive and less disappointing than Villeneuve’s star-studded thriller. It may offer little we have not seen before, but Pront’s combination of familiar elements still make for an effectively gripping trip to the forest.