Field of nightmares: The Silence ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 30, 2013)

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Generally speaking, a field of wheat is a field of wheat; nothing more, nothing less. However, in the realm of crime thrillers, such benign rural locales can harbor ominous underpinnings (Memories of Murder, The Onion Field and In Cold Blood come to mind). And so it is in The Silence, a low-key, quietly unsettling genre entry from Germany. In the hands of Swiss-born writer-director Baran bo Odar (who adapted from Jan Costin Wagner’s novel), a wheat field emerges as the principal character; an unlikely venue for acts running the gamut from the sacred to profane, as unfathomably mysterious and complex as the humans who commit them within its enveloping, wind-swept folds.

A flashback to the mid-1980s, involving the disappearance of a 13-year old girl, whose abandoned bicycle is found amid the aforementioned waves of grain, sets the stage for the bulk of the story, which begins 23 years later with an eerily similar incident at the same location involving a girl of the same age. A team of oddly dysfunctional homicide detectives (several of whom worked the former unsolved case) sets about to investigate. However, Odar quickly discards standard police procedural tropes by revealing the perpetrator to the audience long before the police figure out who it is. Interestingly, this narrative choice echoes another German crime thriller (arguably the seminal German crime thriller), Fritz Lang’s M. And, just like the child-murderer in Lang’s film, this is a monster hidden in plain sight who walks “among us”… personifying the banality of evil.

Putting the “mystery” on the back burner allows Odar to focus on the aftermath of tragedy. The loss of any loved one is profound; but the loss of a child, especially via an act of violence, is particularly devastating to surviving family members (so poignantly evident to us all in the wake of Sandy Hook). In that respect, I was reminded of Atom Egoyan’s 1997 drama, The Sweet Hereafter. Like Egoyan, Odar deep-sixes Cause and makes a beeline for Effect, peeling away the veneer of his characters like the layers of an onion, enabling his talented ensemble to deliver emotionally resonant performances. Consequently this haunting film is not so much about interrogations and evidence bags as it is about grief, loss, guilt, redemption…and an unfathomably mysterious field of wheat.

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