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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

MOVIES: The Villain of "Hush" Isn't as Flat as You Think


So first things first. The movie Hush is amazing. Look it up on Netflix. It's a tight, quiet horror movie about a deaf/mute novelist (that's not a spoiler, that's literally within the first minute or two of setup) being chased through her house by a serial killer, as she tries to outwit him and last the night.

For obvious reasons, there's very little dialogue. There is some -- our heroine Maddie can lip-read, and the unnamed killer uses that to his advantage, taunting her as he hunts her from both inside and outside her home. But dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum, with the majority of the movie playing out in silence or well-designed sound effects.

As I read through reviews and theories about the film after watching it, one thing kept coming to the forefront: the unnamed man was a "flat character." True, we never learn the reason for his killing spree. The film sets us up to expect Maddie's recent ex to be the man behind the mask, but (again, not really a spoiler) it's Just Some Guy. What little we learn of him only tells us enough to know that he doesn't know Maddie or her ill-fated friend, and that he's just putting notches (literally) in his crossbow.

A few viewers have argued that knowing his motive could have made the movie more compelling -- that simply having A Killer meant we lost out on a lot of potential drama. I can absolutely see how this would be the case, but I don't necessarily believe it would have bettered the movie.

For one thing, this is not the story of Maddie vs. the killer. This is a story of a woman fighting back. The whole scenario is deeply steeped in the imagery of her as a writer attempting to pull her story's threads together into a satisfying ending. So deeply steeped, in fact, that some believe the entire movie from the moment the killer arrives is just her playing out plot scenarios in her head. It's a neat conceit, but not likely.




I was recently a guest on Radio Free Skaro discussing the Doctor Who episode "Knock Knock." While much of the panel said that the lack of background on the episode's many victims took them out of the moment, I maintained that the lack of focus was meant to redirect our attention. An undeveloped character can be bad writing, but it can also mean that we are meant to immerse ourselves in the circumstances surrounding them. Without heavy characterization, we're freed of any concern as to their fate, and the horror of the story is allowed to play out.

This is a tactic that horror manga-ka Junji Ito pretty much uses as his bread and butter. His stories almost never have well-developed characters, to the point that even his protagonists look extremely generic (with the exception of a handful of regular players like Tomie). With no empathy and very little way to tell this lead apart from the lead of his last five stories, we're free to witness the eldritch horrors of their surroundings consume them without being distracted by getting attached.

Handing the unnamed killer a motive, even if he was genuinely a foul and irredeemable human being, adds another layer to the story, and it makes the story about Maddie vs. The Killer. And in point of fact, the film is about Maddie vs. Insane Odds. There's no harm in not giving those insane odds a background.

That said... I'm not entirely certain we weren't given one.


What do we know of the killer? He kills. He enjoys killing. He uses a crossbow and comments on how it's not as easy to use as it looks. His crossbow has has marks in it -- presumably his kills. We can assume he preys largely on defenseless women, as his previous mark was a woman and his interest in Maddie is piqued as soon as he realizes she's deaf. And he wants to toy with her a bit before he finishes her.

That could honestly be any movie killer (or, sadly, any real-world killer). It's not much to go on. Most have assumed he's a hunter, given his skill with the crossbow and his love of hunting and killing.

But there's one little tiny throwaway moment that tells us exactly why he kills... and exactly why he's going for Maddie.

Around the middle of the movie, we see him taunting her through her window. He's removed his last mark's earrings and is flashing them at her, making silly faces. Maddie, overcome with the seriousness of the situation, turns away and begins to leave the room -- not as an act of defiance, not to run, but simply because she's hit so hard with what's going on that she needs to sit down and have a freak out before she keeps going.

Maddie isn't what we need to look at, though -- it's the man. Because what he does is interesting.

A bully (because this is bullying -- just very gruesome levels of it) would likely take delight in seeing their mark collapse so obviously. That means they're accomplishing their goal. They might laugh or go harder, knowing they've found something that works.

But that's not what the killer does when Maddie turns away. He gets mad. He starts pounding on the window, shouting at her angrily. He's clearly distraught that, now that she's turned away, she is no longer able to witness his bullying.

This is about attention. And power.

"Well, obviously," you're saying. But think about it. This is a man who discovers that the one witness to his crime didn't witness it. Because she couldn't. If his main goal was not being caught, he would've just gotten the heck out. If his main goal was upping his body count? He could have walked in right then and shot her through the head, and she wouldn't even know what hit her.


Instead, he set aside his whole night and risked his freedom and his body count, all to mess with her. To make her do the one thing she hadn't done: notice him. Be forced to observe him. Better still? Force a deaf woman to "hear" him -- something truly impossible. But he'd manage it.

Only when he'd gotten enough attention would he end his game.

We may never know this killer's name, but we do know that attention drives him. Or, if it didn't before, it does now. Does it make a difference to the film as a whole? Probably not. This is still about Maddie, her courage, and her problem-solving.

It is, though, an amazing look at how a tiny motion or two can deliver characterization. It's true in real life, and it's true in film.

Again, please be sure to go watch Hush if you haven't already. It's an amazing piece of work.