War Witch and The Silence



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War Witch, written and directed by Kim Nguyen, a Quebecois filmmaker, is about a 12 year old girl, Komona, who is abducted and forced to be a guerilla for a rebel army somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The story is brutal and frank and worthwhile.  It’s a film that probably should be seen just because of the horrifying and important subject matter.  At the same time, I wish I could say I liked it more than I did; but if truth be told, I felt most of it didn’t really show me anything I hadn’t seen before.  When it did, when it’s revealed, for example, that Komona has the ability to see the dead, it’s quite thrilling and scary in a way that I wanted the rest of the movie to be, but wasn’t.   But this aspect of the film, which was new and exciting, never really seemed that integral to the rest of the story (it’s called War Witch, but I often felt the Witch part of the movie was almost an afterthought).  In the end, I think the real issue for me, and I hate to be heartless, is that I never felt that Komona was a real person, but was more of a symbol of all the atrocities that are taking place in the war torn areas of Africa.  I never became as deeply and emotionally involved as I did, say, with Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2012 Academy Awards.
In The Silence, a teenager is raped and killed and her body disposed of in a lake.  The culprits are never caught.  Twenty three years later, another teenager goes missing, from the exact same location and everyone wonders if there is a connection.  That, basically, is the crux of this German murder mystery, the second film from writer and director Baran bo Odar: why was the murderer of the first girl silent for so long and why did he decide to speak now, twenty three years later?   And who in the audience wouldn’t want to know the answer to that? 
The Silence certainly starts off well and there is much to like.  It’s intelligently written and emotionally involving.  The characters are well drawn.  It has some beautifully sweeping God’s eye views that are thrilling to watch (for some reason that I’m not sure I can explain, there is something riveting to the way bo Odar films a car from above pulling out of a garage and driving out of the parking area of an apartment complex).   But somewhere along the way, the whole thing loses its forward momentum.  I’m not totally sure why, but I suspect it’s because bo Odar is trying to make something out of the story that it was never intended to be and the harder he tries, the more clearly it appears that he isn’t quite succeeding.
The Silence is what is often called over directed.  Bo Odar uses alls sorts of camera angles and editing tricks and stylistic flourishes to make us think this is not really a movie about a twenty-three year old murder, but a study of a group of people who are haunted by unexplained tragedy.  In the same way, the screenplay is also overwritten, constantly getting off subject to focus on the personal lives of the various characters to show the audience that it is not about who did it, but the people something was done to.  What happens is that about half way through, one wants to say, okay, I get it, these people are broken, haunted, destroyed—now can we get back to why someone would kill someone in the same way someone was killed twenty three years earlier?
This directorial approach is the same method Chan-wook Park employed for Stoker and Orson Welles for Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai.   But in the end, just as Park and Welles, no matter how hard they tried , couldn’t disguise the fact that they were dealing with routine material, and that there was no there, there (though at least Welles is a ton of fun when he did it), no matter what bo Odar does, The Silence is basically an Agatha Christie whodunit and no more. 
So I was hardly surprised to find out that the movie is based on a book in a series of books by Jan Costin Wagner, a German crime fiction writer who sets his stories in Finland.   It has that feeling of a mystery in a string of mysteries, thrillers filled with those quaint characters that reappear again and again, with a plot that starts out with one of those intriguing hooks that instantly rivet one, and in which any deeper meaning is merely along for the ride and not the goal itself.  It’s very reminiscent of those crime series one watches on television week after week, like Beck, or  Wallander, or in the U.S., Columbo.  But perhaps the most telling aspect of bo Odar’s attempt to make something more out of the story than what is here is that the books by Wagner have a reoccurring character the mystery is built around, detective Kimmo Joentaa.  As far as I can tell, this character is not in the movie, perhaps another attempt by bo Odar to make it seem less like a whodunit and more like, well, “art” (but for my money, a somewhat unsuccessful ruse).
The acting is a mixed bag, which also doesn’t help.  Ulrich Thomsen as the original murderer (don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away, this happens in the opening scene) is the strongest performer here, one of those bad guys that one almost comes to have some empathy for.  But the cast is also filled with a couple of people who go a bit overboard, like Sebastian Blomberg, as an officer grieving over losing his wife to cancer (in his defense, he’s also stuck with one of the most incompetent bosses you’re ever going to see in detective fiction).   And in the end, the mystery is never totally resolved; why the murderer did it is revealed, but not why he waited so long to do it (and though the solution is intriguing in an Agatha Christie whodunit way, it’s not all that convincing).
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