By David Dent
If the title sounds like a film made by Bergman, you’d not be far off the mark; there’s a very European quality to US director Barak Barkan’s stunning and deeply creepy debut feature (which he also wrote). Two sisters live with their father in a remote house in the country, following the death of their mother. Beth (Joan Glackin) is deaf; sister Anna (Mina Walker) is blind. They lead a symbiotic relationship, helping each other to cook, watch movies and enjoy their favourite songs.
Their father (Jordan Lage) is a doctor with a dental fixation, who’s been having an affair with one of his (married) patients, Mrs Long (Ariel Zevon, daughter of the late singer/songwriter Warren Zevon). His observations of his daughters, watching how they interact and develop like some kind of lab experiment, feels like psychologist R.D. Laing’s relationship with his own children. But this guy’s closer to Harold Shipman.
For most of the movie we learn little about Beth and Anna. Their age is unclear: although young adults, they act like children, but one suspects as the film progresses that they’ve been deliberately infantilized. At night we see their father administering injections and, in the morning while they’re still drugged, he bathes and feed them. Their consent to this suggests
it’s a regular occurrence.
When a neighbour, Mrs Bishop (Sandra Gartner), finds a human bone in the woods, hysterically reporting it to their father, he responds by mysteriously digging in the area where the bone was found, removing the evidence, and then prescribing the neighbour a course of drugs, after telling his daughters “I think Mrs Bishop may be off her meds.”
Not long afterwards the sisters ask their father how their mother died, which prompts a violent outburst from him. It becomes clear that their father is seriously unhinged, a fact made clear when Beth is whisked off to quarantine after developing a virus. When she returns Beth is changed, both physically and mentally, and the sisters realise that their lives could well be in danger.
There is a stillness to Barkan’s movie which slowly sucks the viewer in, holding off any violence until the last minute. Glackin, Walker and Lage deliver phenomenal performances here. The sisters’ bonding through adversity, and their silent communication between each other, is conveyed unfussily and totally convincingly, and the deterioration of the relationship with their father – and indeed their father’s own mental decline – are truly frightening. I wasn’t sure what to expect from ‘Silence & Darkness,’ certainly not that it would automatically jump to being one of my top 10 films of 2020. See it as soon as you can.
Watch the trailer for Silence & Darkness below –