Silent Hill

| May 6, 2006

The trailers for SILENT HILL looked amazing. A pale winter of falling ash. Glimpses of a hell that Dante would be proud of. And what a great premise — underground coal mine fires that continue to rage for years, a “ghost town” not of the wild west, but in the mountains of West Virginia. The possibility to create a better Appalachian horror story than WRONG TURN.
A young adopted girl’s parents are concerned about her sleepwalking and trances wherein she keeps mentioning “silent hill.” Eventually, the mother figures out that there is an actual town by that name and decides to take her daughter there, without telling her husband. While heading to Silent Hill, strange things happen, and ultimately, mother and daughter are separated but both trapped in the ghostly town. The father eventually figures out where they have gone and follows, only to encounter an entirely different Silent Hill. I’d list the actors and character names, but why bother, they’re inconsequential. I’d try to summarize the rest of the plot, but why bother, it’s ultimately irrelevant.
What happened to the film promised in the trailers?
SILENT HILL is the gayest film I’ve seen in years. Gay in that highly stylized campy over the top Joan Crawford and Bette Davis cat fight kind of way. Because it’s all about the women — every major character here is female — but the campy part comes in because they’re not like any women you’d encounter in the real world: each is some sort of one-dimensional exaggeration that seems like it (notice I do not say “she”) was created by the proverbial guy-who-has-never-had-a-girlfriend. The concerned mother, the secret child, the protective copette, the crazy woman, the betrayed/betrayer, the “eternal” little girl(s), the religious priestess. And don’t get me started on the herky jerky nurses. The mother/daughter crap becomes so smothering and convoluted that you are almost distracted from the fact that, 1) there is no psychological depth or consistency to any of the characters, and 2) the film is built around a series of inexplicable episodes that have little narrative relevance or connection. SILENT HILL becomes simply a series of pretty images with no real weight or impact. And I thought GOTHIKA was bad!
The cinematography is the only aspect of SILENT HILL that manages to succeed. The images are truly beautiful and evocative. In addition, the production design and special effects are well-executed even if they do not always make sense. The sound design starts out impressively, initially providing some provocative choices, but pretty soon, you can imagine the sound designer finally throwing up his hands and succumbing to the rampant heavy-handedness as well. But save your real pity for the actors who have to somehow make sense of this mess, because the director sure isn’t.
Is it lazy post-modernism? Or is it Art? An homage to films like DON’T LOOK NOW and BRIGADOON or a rip-off? Is it Original or Derivative?
The film does try to provide a final narrative twist (a la M. Night Shyamalan), but by that point, the film has created so many inexplicable events and ignored so many logical implications of its story that the fact that the twist actually makes a certain kind of sense seems too little, too late.
Director Christophe Gans is best known for the Jaws-on-land let’s-rip-off-every-predator-attack-sequence-from-every-movie-we’ve-ever-seen French film, LE PACTE DES LOUPS (AKA, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF), a movie that incredibly awed audiences in France and the USA back in 2001, a movie that ultimately demonstrated only that French cinema could incorporate set pieces and action sequences that are just as incomprehensible and bad as the worst of Hollywood cinema. Based on that film, Gans doesn’t seem particularly concerned with issues of story as much as the visceral excitement that frenetic and ambiguous action can provide. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that events happen in SILENT HILL with little explanation or logic.
Maybe Gans assumes you’ve played the video game and just want to see some of its “memorable” aspects blown up on the big screen. But this movie does service to no one. It sure doesn’t make me want to go buy the game, and it makes me sorry that I paid nearly $10 to see this movie. I guess we should consider the possibility that Roger Avary didn’t provide a coherent script, though he has had a hand in some of Tarantino’s films as well as 2002’s THE RULES OF ATTRACTION and the upcoming BEOWULF. Maybe we’ll have to wait and see how cohesive BEOWULF’s story is before we can squarely lay the blame for SILENT HILL. But Avary seems to have a better track record for filmic coherence than Gans at this point, so I’m willing to extend him the benefit of the doubt.
In the meantime, it seems that the best SILENT HILL can hope for is to become a camp classic that inspires the same kind of devotion that old melodramas seem to achieve. Or maybe when we get those futuristic “cubes” that allow us to project not just films but artwork and design in our homespace, this film will get a second life as video wallpaper.

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