Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Rose's adopted daughter Sharon is a problem sleepwalker (skirting cliffs and such) and suffers nightmares in which she calls out the name Silent Hill. So Rose takes her to the real Silent Hill, a West Virginia ghost town deserted for thirty years after a still-burning coal mine fire poisoned the air. Chased by a suspicious biker cop down a dark highway, Rose avoids a little girl in the road and wipes out. When she wakes up, she's in a grey twilight world, with a constant rain of ash, and her daughter is nowhere to be seen.
This movie is a masterpiece of mood and setting. The main character, really, is Silent Hill itself, and its nightmarish details are laid out with exquisite attention. Rose and Cybil, the cop, find themselves trapped in the ash world, and together they seek out Sharon and the truth. The landscape is stylishly decayed, but not the same squalor I've been describing in other movies; this is like squalor without the moisture, its own unique thing. Periodically the ash world is overcome by a darker evil, heralded by the judgement-horn tones of the air raid sirens. When that happens the dried paint and ash peel upwards, the hellish landscape worsening with a sharper coating of rust. When the Darkness comes, the truly lethal monsters stalk Silent Hill.
It's a wonderful realization of this scary, fictional world, and the feeling of being somewhere entirely else is complete. It's a creative hell, not quite riding the Christian framework, which reminded me of comic book writer Grant Morrison's vision of a closer-to-home, modern theology. And I'm a sucker for the move where a signal goes off and suddenly the whole world transforms into something worse. The only other example I can think of is the Tales from the Dark Side episode called The Last Car, depicting a train car you can never leave in which spectral things happen when traversing tunnels.
This is a notable high mark for movies based on video games, and a high point in the quest for scary CG monsters. The creatures of Silent Hill are mostly actors with computer assistance, but it's really the first time I've seen anything with an obvious CG styling that I'd call scary at all.
However, the two big problems I had with this when I first saw it still bug me. Up until 90 minutes in you're looking at a perfect five-star movie, with these compelling characters navigating this amazing, horrible place. Then comes the reveal, the video-game moment when you find out just what the hick is going on, and it leaves a couple of questions in its place. It's nitpicky, but the relationship between the worldly events and the supernatural ones is a little too murky for my taste. This probably wouldn't even rate as an issue if it weren't for big problem number two: I hate the denoument of this story. The climax unfolds just fine, but three feet from the exit door the plot goes inexplicably sideways. I'm not the kind of guy who needs happy endings or anything; well-wrought dark endings are the truly bold tales in this genre. But there's no reason for this big chunk of disappointment; it's just dropped anonymously in your lap. I'm also open to story elements that leave some of the interpretation to us, but there's a point where it's clever and there's a point where it's sloppy. Silent Hill gets a star knocked off for that sloppy.
Still, this comes highly recommended. It's a beautiful nightmare.