A woman home alone is stalked and hunted by a masked killer. A tried and true trope that we’ve seen many times before. But this time, there’s an added wrinkle, that being our protagonist can neither hear nor speak. Now that the helplessness factor has been multiplied tenfold, you have a start to finish edge of your seat thriller.
Hush’s strengths lie primarily in its direction. As a director, Mike Flanagan was already familiar with the horror genre with both Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil. However, the former was just as much a psychological mind bender as it was horror, and the latter was a prequel to an already existing property. Hush was Flanagan’s first time to direct a stripped back, bare-bones thriller where the only thing to be relied on is his own skill set as a director, and they are on full display.
The cast consists of only four characters, two of which who get significant screen time. What’s more impressive is that, of the two characters we spend the bulk of the film with, one barely has any dialogue, and the other doesn’t have any at all. Yet, over the course of its 81-minute run-time the film is always fully engaging. This is because the film is able to consistently amp up the tension in realistic ways while using minimum dialogue. As a viewer, we never feel like what we’re watching is scripted. Maddie, played by Flanagan’s co-writer and wife Kate Siegel, is played in a very human way. Does she make mistakes? Yes, but they feel more like the decisions people would make in these kinds of situations and less like the frustratingly stupid decisions the genre is so prone to include. Maddie is not the only fallible character though. Even the film’s antagonist, played by John Gallagher Jr., can fumble from time to time and that’s what makes the film that much more suspenseful. As Maddie hides from the killer, we’re not only holding our breath hoping she doesn’t make a mistake but that the killer does make one and that Maddie can capitalize on it. The killer is certainly the one in charge of the situation but, to an extent, he’s still reacting to the decisions Maddie makes as much as she reacts to his. This dynamic makes this a genuine game of cat and mouse.
The most well-executed direction in the world couldn’t make a film great without a great cast, but fortunately, both Siegel and Gallagher excel in their respective roles. From the opening, Maddie is both likable and sympathetic. Suffering from writer’s block, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and a past relationship that didn’t work out, Maddie has felt forced into a life of seclusion and there’s a sense that she still feels frustration over her disability. Yet, despite that, she hasn’t allowed it to make her into a bitter person. As for our unnamed killer, Gallagher plays him in a unique way. He’s not the unstoppable killing machine, devoid of any personality that we’ve seen in almost every other slasher. Nor is he the overtly normal guy you would never expect. Instead, he feels like the kind of crazy just discernible enough to detect, but not overt enough to prove. The kind of guy you would swear would do something messed up if given the opportunity. Both characters feel like people you could come across in everyday life, which makes the situation and threat feel all the more real.
For all its strengths, it doesn’t amount to a perfect film, unfortunately. Despite Flanagan being an intelligent enough director to show restraint, displayed in the only 81-minute run-time, the pacing of the film’s third act might have been improved if it was slightly extended. It mainly consists of Maddie running from one narrow escape to the next, and then a few times more. It feels as if Flanagan had several encounters he wanted to shoot, then had the final film present them consecutively, one right after the other. The film may have benefited from some emotional connective tissue between these scenes to help avoid the feeling of fatigue that slowly crept in.
The fact that this film is more than just good is an impressive feat, considering its small cast, singular location, and limited dialogue. However, Flanagan was able to take those restraints and turn them into strengths, creating a claustrophobic sense of isolation for this tight, well-executed thriller that definitely warrants a watch from fans of the genre.