As we left the cinema, I was asked what I thought of Silent Hill. I said “average”, and as the word left my mouth I knew I didn’t actually agree with my on-the-spot assessment of the film. Describing this film as average is a long way from fair; pretty much everything about the film is above average. And yet, at that moment, my overall opinion was damaged by a handful of elements that I feel could have been better, and that I obviously felt were significant enough to detract from the film as a whole.
The film does many things right: Christophe Gans’ direction is astonishing from the outset. He directs with style and creativity and after some of the mediocre, unimaginative rubbish I’ve watched lately Silent Hill is like a breath of fresh air. Or perhaps rancid, decaying air is a more appropriate description? There are obvious homages to the games upon which the film is based thanks to the use of certain camera angles, but the film isn’t harmed by this, and the trick isn’t over-used. Even a great director can’t produce a decent looking film if the set design isn’t up to much, and thankfully the look of the film is superb. The smoke filled town is suitably creepy, and the eerie industrial-subterranean locations (which could potentially have looked so tacky) are genuinely unsettling.
The soundtrack is similarly excellent, and yet for some reason there are no plans to release a CD. It fluctuates between haunting, piano-driven melodies, and industrial crunching to great effect. The use of sound in general is good too – with various creepy little details being emphasised as a result.
It’s with the performances that the cracks start to appear, although admittedly only one large, Sean Bean shaped crack at this stage. Bean turns in a masterclass on how not to do an American accent, and isn’t terribly convincing as a result. The fact that his part is so underwritten probably doesn’t do him any favours, but I’ll come to that in due course. Bean’s performance doesn’t really detract from the film significantly thanks to the other performances, most significantly Radha Mitchell. Nothing could have destroyed the film more than a poor performance from Mitchell, and while it’s true, her accent does slip a few times (although she can only aspire to give such an authoritative schooling regarding bad accents as Bean does) on the whole she’s brilliant. I’ve been a fan of Mitchell since Pitch Black, and I might go so far as to say she’s my favourite actress working today. Maybe my assessment of her is biased as a result of this, but I think she does a fantastic job. She’s rarely off screen and is required to react with a convincing sense of horror to cgi beasties, and actors in monster costumes, a task which many actors fail to achieve. I look forward to seeing her in Greg McLean’s upcoming creature-feature Rogue. Little Jodelle Ferland isn’t bad either, and manages to convey a suitable amount of menace. I was concerned that her Kingdom Hospital performance might be repeated her, but she’s far better than I expected.
And so to the problems; those significant niggles that I felt damaged what is otherwise an excellent film, and they’re all thanks to Roger Avary’s script. First, I felt that the film dragged a bit in its final third, taking a little too long to begin its superb final sequence. I wonder if one of the film’s excellent set pieces hasn’t been trimmed out of this last third, as the pacing elsewhere is excellent. Then, there’s Sean Bean’s character – a being created solely for the purpose of explaining the events taking place in Silent Hill, and perhaps to provide an anchor in “reality.” Gans’ original script apparently featured only female characters and he was asked to change this, leading to the introduction of Bean’s character. It shows. That said, if it weren’t for this chunk of the story, we’d have been deprived of a great performance by Kim Coates as the investigating police officer.
The single biggest sin committed by Silent Hill is the inclusion of some of the laziest exposition I’ve seen in recent times. Avary clearly couldn’t figure out how to tease the origin story throughout the film, and so throws in a 5 minute explanatory sequence towards the end. It feels forced, lazy, and it doesn’t gel very well with the rest of the film. Although amusingly, it was during this sequence (featuring some fairly graphic imagery) that a lost parent and his three children stumbled into our screening, expecting to find Ice Age 2. How the father didn’t realise, even after sixty seconds of screaming and moaning from on-screen, that he had clearly walked into the wrong film is beyond me. Unless Ice Age 2 is far more graphic than I first expected…
Combine all of the above with a conclusion that doesn’t cop out, and yet somehow manages to be more upbeat than I expected, and Silent Hill is highly recommended viewing. As much as the tedious exposition sequence upset me, the more distance I put between myself and the film, the better I feel about it. I just loathe lazy exposition. I should probably also mention that I didn’t play the games all that much, despite being what some would call an avid gamer. Maybe I should invest in a cheap PS2 so I can play through them.
So, average? Far from it. This is a disturbing, creepy, tense horror film, which succeeds far more often than it fails. It’s probably not for the squeamish though. Or those expecting Ice Age 2.