Most modern movies, especially Hollywood movies, are all about bang and boom and bombast. The new horror thriller ‘A Quiet Place’ bucks that trend, and has been rewarded with both critical acclaim and box office success for it. This week’s Roundtable highlights some other effective uses of silence in movies, TV, and other media.
As soon as I heard the premise for ‘A Quiet Place’, I immediately thought of the ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘ episode ‘Hush’ from Season 4, where a group of bad guys known as The Gentlemen steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale. This is so, among other things, the victims can’t scream when the Gentlemen arrive to kill them.
Written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon, ‘Hush’ is the perfect mix of horror and humor, the latter coming at its best when Giles has to give a PowerPoint presentation to the silenced Scooby Gang, and Buffy gets upset at how fat Giles has drawn her.
But the best moment comes when Buffy finally one-ups the Gentlemen, restoring her voice and letting out a blood-curdling scream that causes the villains’ heads to explode.
In the case of ‘Hush’, silence is indeed golden. It’s arguably the best episode of the entire series.
My pick is impossible to talk about without getting too spoilery, so if you haven’t watched the first season of FX’s ‘Legion‘, you should probably move along.
‘Legion’ is a Marvel TV series (not to be confused as that awful Paul Bettany movie), but it’s pretty disconnected from the existing Marvel properties owned by Fox. Set within the ‘X-Men’ universe, it follows a mutant named David (Dan Stevens) whose untrained superpowers were previously mistaken for mental illness. In reality (this is where we get into spoilers, so consider yourself fairly warned), while he’s potentially the most powerful mutant alive, he’s made to think that he’s crazy by a parasitic cerebral mutant that has infected his mind and manipulated him for his power.
The second half of the eight-episode first season is pretty much a fluid four-part finale that delivers the goods. Coming from Noah Hawley (one of the best working show-runners and the brilliant mind behind the ‘Fargo’ series), ‘Legion’ does some pretty out-there things that you won’t get from convention filmmakers or show-runners.
Towards the end of Episode 5, David’s team learns of the mutant in his mind and attempts to fight it. Being under the influence of the parasite, which appears in three creepy forms, everything goes silent when they start the fight – but not just for the viewing audience. The central characters also lose all sound and cannot communicate verbally with one another. There are no voices, no sound effects, no music. For a few minutes, we get pure silence as they engage the villain. Finally, a character spots one of the parasite’s three forms and, in classic horror fashion, an unexpected burst of musical score pops up. As the threat of it gets larger, we get a little more score. The mood created by the lack of sound and slow, methodical reintroduction of sound is genius.
I won’t make case the case that ‘The Hunt for Red October‘ has the most effective use of silence in a movie or is even the best movie with submarines, but it’s nevertheless a great example of how chilling silence can be in a submarine movie. The combination of dark, claustrophobic characters sweating and straining to both remain silent and to listen for anything conspicuous near or far, with occasional sonar pings or torpedo detonations, makes for a taught film. If anything, ‘The Hunt for Red October’ keeps the action and audio on a brisk clip, so it’s much easier to watch over and over than many other submarine films.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
Stripped down to bare metal, the mechanics of ‘A Quiet Place’ and ‘Don’t Breathe‘ are essentially the same: the slightest sound means certain death.
Of course, there’s not the least bit of confusion in ‘A Quiet Place’ about where our sympathies are meant to lie, as if anyone’s going to be rooting for a race of genocidal aliens. It’s not quite so clear-cut in ‘Don’t Breathe’, even though its premise revolves around a blind, sixty-someodd-year-old veteran who’s fast asleep when a seasoned gang of burglars break into his house.
The invaders, intriguingly, are the protagonists. Although they’re unambiguously criminals, ‘Don’t Breathe’ takes the time to ensure that the audience gets to know the three of them as people and understand what drives them toward this life. The nameless veteran, meanwhile, is not some hapless victim but instead a merciless force of destruction. These three burglars are trapped inside his hopelessly remote house in the dead of night. Hiding – let alone escaping –is all but impossible against a Special Forces vet with such astonishingly keen hearing.
The blind man is both hero and villain. It’s understandable that he’d feel justified in protecting himself and his property, especially considering that one of the burglars is packing heat. Twisted though they may be, his moral code and sense of justice set him apart from the mindless slaughter of Jason Voorhees. There’s still very much an element of stalk-and-slash, though, and ‘Don’t Breathe’ is true to its title in using silence to masterful effect. The premise equates silence with survival. The killer is inches away. There is no score or even background noise to speak of throughout its most intense moments. Even muffled breaths or a frantically beating heartbeat could prove to be a dead giveaway.
It’s those sorts of quiet moments in slasher cinema that I consistently find the most unnervingly intense, and ‘Don’t Breathe’ prolongs that exquisite agony out to feature length in the best possible way.
Any 8th grader knows that there’s no sound in the vacuum of outer space, so why is it that virtually no sci-fi movies depict that accurately? Almost all of them fill their soundtracks with explosions and loud laser blasts and other such sounds that couldn’t transmit through the void. Even the alleged docudrama ‘Apollo 13’ commits this sin and blares scientifically impossible whooshing noises every time the rocket flies past the camera.
I ask this rhetorically, of course. I understand that these movies do it because the filmmakers fear that the audience needs constant noises to stay engaged. Stanley Kubrick knew differently. He strove to put the science back in science fiction for his masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘. He also knew exactly how and when to use silence as a storytelling tool. The E.V.A. sequences, in which the soundtrack is dominated by the sound of the characters breathing inside their space helmets, are amazingly tense and suspenseful.
On a very different note, I want to switch to comic books for a moment and give another shout-out (I did so in last year’s ninja Roundtable) to the famed ‘G.I. Joe‘ Issue #21, ‘Silent Interlude’, which told a completely dialogue-free story about mute commando Snake Eyes raiding an enemy castle and rescuing his kidnapped teammate Scarlett from a clan of evil ninjas. The gimmick worked incredibly well and has been imitated countless times since.
What are your favorite examples of using silence as a critical storytelling tool? Tell us in the Comments.
‘The Tribe’ was a very effective, and disturbing, drama about a school for deaf kids. For the most part the only sound in the movie is the sound of the kids’ trainers squeaking on the floor and the occasional clicking of a door shut. Their deafness plays into the final act in a brutal way that still makes me shudder just thinking about it years later.
I always felt the silence of Michael Meyers helped to make ‘Halloween’ as effective as it is.
I also LOVED the recent X-Files episode that did not use any dialog.
I liked how Gravity used it’s music score almost like a sound effect given that none of the space scenes had any environmental sound unless someone bumped into an object.
It feels like the round table is a week behind. Anywho, I got to agree with Shannon on Buffy’s Hush episode. One of my absolute favorites. Very creepy.
The Strangers uses silence or minimal sound cues to really great effect in a few scenes.
The vault scene in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, and the heist in RIFIFI.
I’ll vote Das Boot.
I remember buying Silent Interlude on the newstand when it came out. I was a huge GI Joe fan as a kid and this was the highlight of the Marvel run. It was a bold idea in comics and came out wonderfully. I have “read” this story many times as it’s one of my favorites of any comic book.
Das Boot was my thought as well.
Josh: If you haven’t already seen it, I think you should check out Community’s G.I. Joe episode.
I watched that episode when it aired and loved every minute of it.