Home invasion thrillers share several aspects, but one of the more common among them is that the home being invaded is typically occupied by a single woman. Clearly women shouldn’t be allowed to live alone, but until we can pass a law forbidding such things from happening their dwellings will continue to be death traps.
Maddie (Kate Siegel) is the latest woman to tempt fate by living on her own, but she has a second characteristic that potentially marks her as even more of a victim in the eyes of an assailant — she’s deaf. An illness took her hearing when she was just a teenager, and while she’s found a career as a writer and maintains relationships with family and a seemingly small group of friends, she’s also grown a bit withdrawn over the years. She’d rather avoid situations — dealing with an ex, meeting new people — but her hand is forced when a masked killer (John Gallagher Jr.) targets her for a grim and grueling demise.
Hush isn’t the first thriller to focus on a deaf woman — The Quiet, Hear No Evil, and the supernaturally-infused Avenged all precede it — but director/co-writer Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Absentia) captures Maddie’s perspective and experience with a precision that makes her terror that much more palpable. We’re not seeing through her eyes, but we do “hear” through her ears as the audio cuts out periodically to envelop us in the silence to which she’s accustomed.
That contrast is made clear in the very beginning as her cooking is accompanied by the sharp sounds of chopping and sizzling only to go silent as the camera moves slowly towards her ear, but it’s more fully realized later in the film as the killer stands behind her tapping his knife in rhythms she’ll never hear. The effective sound design is complemented by an energetic score from The Newton Brothers that helps drive the action and hold the suspense.
Maddie is something of a “final girl,” and with a cast this small — there are only three other characters — it can be difficult to find her opportunities to stand apart from a crowded field. To that end she’s allowed to be both smart and fallible. She’s forced into some on the fly improvisation, and some of her ideas work far better than others. A few beats frustrate as she does — or doesn’t do — something that seems obvious to those of us watching the terror unfold from the comfort of a chair with a refreshing beverage by our side, but her mistakes feel more human than stupid.
We know this is a game of cat and mouse, but while it proceeds as expected in the grand scheme — killer stalking a victim who tries to stay a step ahead — the thrills are in the details. The ways he toys with her deafness are creepy, but even more frightening is the knowledge that when he’s out of her sight he could easily be breaking down doors or windows and she wouldn’t even know it. Her sight still plays into the terror though as the house, a remote home set a ways apart from her neighbor, has large picture windows allowing Maddie to see her tormentor as he moves around the exterior. The film steadily builds suspense, but an odd choice in the third act deflates that tension — and risks damaging the tension yet to come — with something of a cheat. It’s meant to tie in to Maddie’s earlier dilemma, but it’s a cheap move that happily (albeit confusingly) isn’t revisited.
Siegel, who also co-wrote the film, makes Maddie its heart with a character forced into isolation long ago and forced now to defend that solitude. There’s a fragility to her existence that sits quietly in the shadow of her independence, and Siegel expresses that softness without the need for words. Maddie’s far from a pushover though, and Siegel captures her fighting spirit with equal vitality. The unnamed killer isn’t given the luxury of a back story, but Gallagher Jr. breaks free of his nice guy typecasting with a terrifically cruel and playfully vicious performance.
Hush isn’t an effect-driven horror film like Flanagan’s previous outing, Oculus, but it’s far more effective in the fears it captures and the suspense it generates. (I can’t be the only one excited for the next two movies in his Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Throat quadrilogy, right?) It’s one thing to be scared of the noises and sounds around us — now imagine the terrors you can’t even hear coming.
Editor’s note: Our review of Hush originally ran during SXSW 2016, and we’re re-posting it now as the film makes its premiere on Netflix.