Movie Review: Hush
(dir. Mike Flanagan, 2016)
Prior to Hush, director Mike Flanagan helmed two successful horror films. The first was Absentia, a poignant and absorbing yarn in the style of a creepy urban myth. The second was Oculus, a blistering fable about family dysfunction (and haunted mirrors) told in parallel timelines. This time, Flanagan steps off the supernatural plane, applying his visual storytelling prowess to a more straightforward suspense thriller.
Straightforward it would seem anyway, but the script by Flanagan and lead actress Kate Siegel (also seen in Oculus) has just as many sneaky tricks without conjuring ghosts or other forces from beyond. Brace for old-fashioned hometown horror with some keen new ideas. Maddie (Siegel) is a novelist caught in the chasm between publishing a successful first book and the nebulous, looming horror of penning an equally brilliant follow-up. Her main stumbling block is the ending. Early in the film she agonizes over a suitably powerful and satisfying denouement for her new story. Are you getting a prickly feeling about where this narrative might be headed?
Another important detail: Maddie is deaf and mute, the result of a childhood battle with bacterial meningitis and subsequent complications. While not a cold or bitter person, she is fiercely independent in the aftermath of her illness and reclusive in the service of her writing. This film works on a deft balance of suspense and surprise. To avoid undue revelation of the surprises, let us say merely that after a brief encounter with her friendly neighbor Sarah (Samantha Sloyan), Maddie becomes trapped in her isolated rural home by a sadistic interloper (John Gallagher Jr.) with a game called murder in mind. Though differing on key points of tone and structure, Maddie's plight calls to mind the classic stage-and-screen potboiler Wait Until Dark, in which a blind woman is swindled then stalked in her home by a cold-blooded criminal.
Introductory scenes in Hush establish that Maddie lives alone and keeps to herself, but uses various technological means to communicate with friends and family. With linked networking devices, visual alerts and so on, she does not miss much on a normal day. However, she can and does miss certain things that a hearing person would not. She is doubly vulnerable to ambush due to the immersive nature of her work. A shocking early scene (okay, it's the inciting incident) illustrates how crucial her deafness is to her special predicament. The promise of the setup is that Maddie, like Suzy in Wait Until Dark, must eventually manipulate her environment to work against her stalker's apparent sensory advantage. Furthermore, she must call on her command of plot to craft an ending in which, against heavy odds, she will survive. Friends have told Maddie that she is a gifted storyteller. Her ordeal becomes the ultimate practical exam for proving it.
The small cast performs well, but the script does not lend itself to standout performances in the same way Oculus did for its ensemble. There is room for one tour-de-force, and Kate Siegel really, really gives it. As the mute protagonist she nails every emotional and logical beat necessary to keep her thoughts, feelings, and intentions clear. Her performance highlights how overwritten many dramatic scripts are, and how frequently snappy dialogue covers thin stories. With nowhere to hide, Siegel charges into her role and ought to be be proud of the result. In its style and staging Hush invites comparisons to other contemporary home invasion films, especially Adam Wingard's 2011 slasher You're Next. However, Flanagan's film does not work the same overtones of black comedy, and is consequently less arch in its execution. The plot has lurid and outrageous elements as required by the genre, but plays them straight. The main contrivance is the killer's reserved, cat-and-mouse approach to terrorizing Maddie.
The second act stalls for a bit too much time, stopping short of a few obvious chances for deadly confrontation, but the script takes pains to rationalize the antagonists's m.o., specifically his preference for psychological torture over the actual thrill of the kill. To rationalize a mindset which is, after all, irrational to begin with. If this guy were not a psycho with his own psycho rulebook, there would be no film to watch. And that would be a real shame, because overall Hush is a potent and smartly executed thriller, well worth the investment. Flanagan manipulates the stock trappings of the genre with a parade of inventive twists and reversals. The good news is that despite some mildly strained logic, the second act still works. The great news is that the first and third acts are heart-stopping. That should be plenty to entice the willing and at least moderately bloodthirsty.