Who doesn’t love a good rural noir? Debra Granik’s highly-acclaimed and tough-minded Winter’s Bone, adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, bestowed upon audiences Jennifer Lawrence’s still-greatest performance as Ree Dolly, the pragmatic and hard-nosed teenager who injects a subtly effective warrior feminism into a stark mystery tale centred on the cruel and dangerous criminal underworld of the Ozark Mountains. Its themes of androcentric social structures, cultural degeneracy, ruthless codes of justice and hostility toward outsiders cultivated a spellbinding portrait of a place that seems almost like a parallel universe, the laws and customs deviating from the dominant mainstream culture as strongly as they do.
Similarly threatening rustic settings and overtones have been utilised to brilliant effect in the likes of trope-skewering revenge drama Blue Ruin, warped Texas-based black comedy Killer Joe and Taylor Sheridan’s necessarily troubling directorial debut Wind River. Though divergent in locale and mood, all of these works solidly communicate a sense of living inside an idiosyncratic arse-end of the United States that eschews trust in official law enforcement and seeing the best in people as naive approaches that are guaranteed to buy you a wooden overcoat. If you don’t have what it takes to eat the other dog first, best pack up and f**k off to a cop-ridden metropolitan sprawl.
The Silencing, a new film from Belgian director Robin Pront, attempts an addition to this very sub-genre with its character study-cum-missing persons thriller angle, but lacklustre acting, a plot with more holes than a block of Emmental and no finger on the pulse of what made the aforementioned dark country sagas work renders it a consummately forgettable experience.
Rayburn Swanson (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a deeply tormented man. A former hunter, Swanson has denounced the practice and converted his dense woodland property into a wildlife sanctuary, only wielding his firearms to scare away trigger-happy woodsmen who lambast the once-legendary Swanson as an emasculated, hippy-like sellout. A partial catalyst for Rayburn’s lifestyle overhaul is the disappearance of his daughter Gwen, supposedly abducted 5 years prior without a trace, an event that has turned his previously externalised sporting instinct and hostility inward and resulted in a dependency on hard liquor.
Meanwhile, in the surrounding town, the police are discovering the corpses of young women who have been fixtures on the missing boards for months, their decomposing and ligature-marked bodies turning up beside streams and forest enclaves with no leads in sight. Surveyed by the cynical-yet-noble chief of police Blackhawk (the excellent Zahn McClarnon of Fargo and Doctor Sleep fame), the murders are probed by Officer Gustafson (Annabelle Wallis), a put-upon beat cop who is constantly strained via having to bail her younger brother Brooks (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) out of trouble for offences related to drugs and violence.
Rayburn demands to have a look at some of the victims in the local morgue in a desperate bid to achieve some closure after all of these years, but to no avail. He’s also been noticing some rather odd and unsettling occurrences on his property’s surveillance system recently, namely a figure in a ghillie suit running around with a bow-and-arrow, hunting hapless and terrified young women. After a close call attempting to confront this diabolical miscreant, Rayburn is thrown into an excruciating new frontier of pain, determined to stop any more girls falling prey to this insidious camouflaged freak and potentially bring the person responsible for Gwen’s vanishing to justice. This endeavour sees him butting heads with Officer Gustafson, who has an awful suspicion that her wild and crazy younger brother may have some involvement in the serial killings.
I’m feeling somewhat embittered typing up this review, because this is a picture that should have worked. Coster-Waldau is a formidable actor who will obviously be known to most people as Jaime ‘The Kingslayer’ Lannister in Game Of Thrones, and he has delivered very strong turns in the likes of Headhunters, the original Danish version of Nightwatch, Black Hawk Down and Shot Caller. There is nothing wrong with his performance here in its essence, but it is suffocated by an extremely poor script and a cast who predominantly appear unable to care less. McClarnon is given little to work with beyond a stereotypical ‘wise and world-weary Native American’ part, but the performer who makes the work come apart at the seams is undoubtedly Wallis. Try as she might to portray a hard-bitten police officer who thinks on her feet, she conveys about as much presence as a lump of wood, her chemistry with the other actors and reactions to narrative developments about as convincing as Johnnie Cochran’s glove defence.
The film possesses the unfortunate trait of being relatively short but feeling utterly laborious to conclude. It’s only 95 minutes long, and for the majority of those 95 minutes, nothing happens. And no, I’m not referring to fight sequences, high-octane set pieces or even surprising narrative turns, I mean nothing in even the foundational sense. Characterisation is painfully thin in this venture, and at no point are we actually given a ball to run with in terms of authentication and emotional involvement. As I said before, Coster-Waldau puts in decent work in his portrayal of somebody with deep psychological wounding, but the other characters do an abundance of things that make no contextual sense and are given no cogent addressing by the time the credits roll. It gets it right atmospherically thanks to Manuel Dacosse’s nifty cinematography, but it’s utterly bereft of the heart that makes the outstanding entries in country noir beat. When the bland and unimaginative reasons for all of the events on-screen are finally unearthed, the complete lack of momentum in character psychology and arc leaves the viewer cold and indifferent.
It’s a boring, confused mess. Pront has proven to be a creator struggling to find his voice in the past with his disappointing first feature The Ardennes, and The Silencing certainly isn’t making prospects look any brighter. I do so love a solid rural thriller, and I hoped to be moved, excited and disturbed by this film as it has all of the right ingredients, but it never takes you into a grip. Please, even if you’re a fellow fan of some people involved and are intrigued by the story, just avoid it. A woefully misjudged outing.