Silent Night: "Hush" a sensational, bare-bones cat-and-mouse thriller

Hush (2016) 
87 min., rated R.

Now here’s how you execute a high-concept thriller. Typically in a home-invasion thriller, there is a couple who needs to rely on each other before their fight-or-flight instincts force them to keep going. In “Hush,” a deaf-mute woman pit against a ruthless killer must rely all on sight to save her skin; that’s true resourcefulness. Pared-down even more so than 2007’s “Vacancy” and 2008’s “The Strangers,” writer-director Mike Flanagan (2014’s sharp-looking but overpraised “Oculus”) and his co-writer, wife and leading lady Kate Siegel, have come up with a doozy of a premise so novel and compact that it will make other filmmakers envious he or she didn’t think of it first. Creative simplicity can be hard to do, but "Hush" pulls it off beautifully.

More than up for the challenge to act without a spoken word, Kate Siegel gives a demanding, emotionally compelling performance as Maddie Young, a deaf-mute novelist living in a cottage in the woods. She permanently lost her speech and hearing at age 13 from surgical complications for bacterial meningitis, but she’s independent and her isolated life has allowed her to focus on writing her new book. When a masked, hunting-knife-and-crossbow-wielding man (John Gallagher Jr.) comes her way and realizes her limitations, he first steals her cell phone. Maddie is able to lock herself inside her home and eventually exhausts every possibility of escaping through other doors and windows, distraction methods included. She can try to remain one step ahead of her stalker, but the man is quite determined to get in for one reason. This dire situation can only end with one of them left standing.

Premiering at 2016’s SXSW Festival and not long after being released on Netflix, “Hush” is a sensational little cat-and-mouse thriller, a study in bare-bones minimalism even. Director Mike Flanagan shrewdly gets the viewer into Maddie’s headspace, heightening our senses with a dinner she’s making and then dropping out the sound. Flanagan also very efficiently sets up his protagonist's way of life, her career, her family and her dating status all in a matter of ten minutes. Once faced with a living nightmare, Maddie is completely at a disadvantage and might appear helpless, and yet, she is more resourceful and makes better judgment than most horror-movie heroines who have all of their senses. It can be very easy to sit back and judge the mistakes of movie characters, but Maddie feels like a real person and not a mindless pawn used to propel the plot forward. Even so, she is still not some superwoman immune to getting hurt. Making the transformation from a woman just going about her night, enjoying the freedom of living alone and maybe getting some work done, to a survivalist who refuses to be a victim with the senses and tools at her disposal, Kate Siegel's strong-willed, sympathetic Maddie is worth celebrating as a female-empowerment figure next to Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, Sidney Prescott, and Erin from "You're Next."

Opposite Siegel's Maddie, an against-type John Gallagher Jr. (2016's "10 Cloverfield Lane") is effectively threatening as the neck-tattooed killer, who takes off his creepy mask and reveals his face so Maddie can’t pull the “I won’t tell anyone” card. He has no motive for his actions, which will not satisfy viewers who need more explanation, but that brings a frightening sense of reality to the film’s portrayal of random attempted murder as sport. There are three other characters, including Maddie’s sister Max (Emilia Graves) on a FaceTime call, her neighbor friend Sarah (a likable, eye-catching Samantha Sloyan) and Sarah’s boyfriend John (Michael Trucco), but they are mainly here to actualize a life for Maddie or to become collateral damage.

Owing a debt to 1967’s “Wait Until Dark,” with a blind Audrey Hepburn overcoming her intruders, but never beholden to an exact formula, “Hush” is impressively, torturously tense and distressing. What Flanagan has wrought is essentially one long chase, playing out in real time for 87 minutes, but it’s such a tightly focused chase, moving at a clip rate and carried out with deft staging and heart-pounding, thumb-screw tension. He adeptly defines the spatial geography of Maddie's house, so we always know where Maddie's male terrorizer outside is in relation to her inside. There's also at least one squirm-inducingly brutal jolt, particularly a bit involving a sliding glass door. Close to the third act, the film also inventively plays with the notion of story endings and worst-case scenarios, tying in Maddie’s indecision on how to end her own stories. Over before the cat-and-mouse game has any time to get repetitive, “Hush” tautly and satisfyingly delivers the goods to anyone who thought the home-invasion subgenre was in dire need of life support. 

Grade: A -