By Johnnie Hobbs III.

A subtle indie thriller…chock-full of slow-burning tension and wonderful performances.”

When do secrets and control masked as love become acts of sheer violence? The subtly eerie psychological thriller Silence & Darkness looks to explore this question. Led by first-time feature film writer-director Barak Barkan, Silence & Darkness shows the life of two sisters (one blind, one deaf) living with their widowed father, a doctor, in a secluded house in a small town. Like most thrillers, all seems right with this pleasant family until you peel back the layers to show the awful, insidious nature that’s been lurking in the shadows the entire time. Funny how this seems to be the track of most thrillers. No one ever seems to clock the debauchery ahead of time. A lot of them, like Silence & Darkness, don’t make the characters even a little suspicious of the loved one who soon turns into an unforgivable monster. This isn’t a dig at this movie, but more of an observation on the genre.

One of the more interesting trivia for Silence & Darkness is that Barkan, an NYU’s Tisch School Grad, seemed to have a track set for comedic filmmaking. The first four short films Barkan directed were all under that particular genre. It brings up the question, “What came first?” Is this a comedic director who wanted to branch out and push the limits of a learned skill set? Or, was there always a desire to create a thriller but he happened to get lost in the comedy realm during college for four short films? Or maybe these questions are based on a desire we have to place people in a box. Directors have done this before; Barkan won’t be the last. It could be as simple as this: Barak Barkan is a director who enjoys making movies, and while the jump from one continuous genre to another could justify a head-tilt, it may not have been one for Barkan. Either way, it’s a damn good effort on someone’s first time out.

Joan Glackin plays Beth, the sister who is deaf, while Mina Walker plays Anna, the blind sister. This can’t be stressed enough: both of these individuals give fantastic performances. Glackin and Walker don’t play into the stereotypes by mimicking the deaf or blind. It becomes less about any clichés concerning the handicaps and more about the sisters’ symbiotic relationship working in tandem with one another. One would imagine that protection, love, and care are words that kept these performers connected during filming. Not a heavy spoiler, but there is a scene of the sisters watching Rear Window, Hitchcock’s thriller starring James Stewart about a photographer in a wheelchair confined to his room who witnesses a murder. Again, the movie reference is subtle, but the real takeaway is how the sisters watch the film together. Beth signs in Anna’s hand about the action on screen, while Anna signs in Beth’s hand the dialogue. Even in the heightened world of a psychological thriller, they portray real-life people who seem to live in a grounded reality. The same can be said for the father, played by Jordan Lage. Lage’s performance is terrifying, as the actor attaches warmth and sincerity to his character’s horrendous actions, making them all the more unsettling to digest. Once you hear the father sing the Cole Porter song “I’ve Got you Under My Skin” you’ll never hear the song the same again. Plus, the character has a thing with cleanliness that is truly cringe-worthy.

Now, as much as I enjoyed this movie and its performances (I watched it twice), I’m left with a question that kept poking at me. In a socially conscious world where we are looking to give equal opportunity to all people in all fields, should the performances of two handicapped sisters be played by two seemingly able-bodied performers? Again, Joan Glackin and Mina Walker gave grounded and honest performances, but as far I can tell from other work they’ve done, they can both see and hear. Again, this is not an attack but merely a question for us to ponder: When is it acceptable for actors to play characters outside of their worldview? Actors should be able to embody other characters outside of themselves. This type of work allows for empathy to flow, but inclusion and honest representation is key to people feeling seen where they once were not. Where is the line? The most recent example is the Warner Brothers 2021 blockbuster Godzilla vs. Kong. The deaf character, Jia, is played by deaf child actor Kayle Hottle. First thought, Warner Brothers is Warner Brothers and they have money to allocate for an on-set translator. Silence & Darkness, as an indie film, mostly likely had a modest budget, with not enough money or time to bring in a translator. So, Barkan picked the people for the job that would give honest and truthful performances, able-bodied or not. This is a complex question we will come across time and time again until all people have a seat at the table and feel a balance.

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a subtle indie thriller that is under 90 minutes, during what we hope to be the end of this pandemic, that is chock-full of slow-burning tension and wonderful performances, then rent Silence & Darkness on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

Johnnie Hobbs III is a filmmaker and teacher in Los Angeles, CA by way of Philadelphia. Read his manifesto for a new black period film here.

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