Two men sit in a darkened living room watching an 8mm home movie play on a screen before them. It shows a young girl, terrified and sitting on a bed, while a man in a mask sits beside her and begins to unbutton his shirt. The two men head out into the sunshine of the day, driving aimlessly, until they see a young girl on a bike turn down an off-road path into the woods. They follow.
It’s July 8th, 1986, and eleven year old Pia is raped and murdered by Peer (Ulrich Thomsen) while the second man, Timo (Wotan Wilke Möhring), watches with equal parts disgust and arousal. The two dispose of the body and return home, but before Peer’s car has been washed of any evidence Timo has packed and boarded a bus out of town.
23 years later, to the very day, another young girl goes missing with only her bike and bag left behind at the very spot where Pia was abducted so many years ago. Writer/director Baran bo Odar’s film, The Silence, follows the families, the police and the two men behind the original unsolved case in a story that pairs grief and guilt, obsession and duty. A suspenseful journey through other people’s pain, the film nevertheless finds beauty too through its cinematography, score and performances.
Sinikka’s disappearance triggers multiple characters on a collision course of mystery and sorrow including Timo who’s now a family man with a wife and two children, a retired cop named Krischan (Burghart Klaußner) who’s still haunted by the unsolved murder case from decades earlier, Pia’s mother Elana (Katrin Sass) who still jogs the path where her daughter was killed and an emotionally unbalanced cop named David (Sebastian Blomberg) who’s suffering his own grief after the recent loss of his wife to cancer.
The film moves between them as the story unfolds with one particularly intense scene capturing them all watching the news report on Sinikka’s abduction play across their respective televisions. There are suspects both obvious and not so obvious among them, but the journey to the truth is a long one populated by those who feel guilty, those suffering from grief and someone enduring both.
The procedural part of the film follows the detectives’ efforts to tie the events together and identify the suspects, but even as we see them connecting previously unseen dots we also clench our fists as bureaucracy and expediency obfuscate details that would expose the truth. It’s a harrowing and uncertain race to avoid history repeating itself, and as the thriller elements play out the emotional peaks and valleys are still allowed room to breathe.
Credit goes to Odar’s direction and script (and to Jan Costin Wagner’s source novel), but just as necessary here are strong performances from the lead players. Thankfully all involved deliver just that, but the standouts are Sass and Möhring. Both of them play characters facing a long overdue awakening. For Sass it’s a character shift from numbness fueled by a decades-long grief to the belief that she’s allowed to feel once again. Möhring meanwhile plays a man whose deep, dark secret has finally chewed a hole out into the light and can no longer be contained within.
As ugly as some of the characters’ actions and thoughts are the movie is beautifully photographed at even its most somber times. The golden fields swaying around victim and murderer, the green trees swallowing another, the expressions allowed to linger on faces torn by sadness or perversion… the grotesque and heart-wrenching have rarely looked so pretty.
While it’s not quite in the same league as Memories of Murder and Zodiac, The Silence deserves mention in the same breath as those two classics all the same thanks to its visually stunning and emotionally affecting look at the people caught up in a maelstrom of violence and loss.
The Upside: Beautiful cinematography; manages real suspense and keeps viewers guessing; strong acting across the board
The Downside: Some viewers may take issue with the end; minor narrative coincidences and shortcuts
On the Side: There are no opening credits on the film.
The Silence opens Friday, March 8th, in limited theatrical release.