6 startling moments of quiet in summer blockbusters
Giovanni finds six moments of near-silence in big movies, proving louder isn't always better...
This article contains mild spoilers for What Lies Beneath.
Summer is upon us and the nation’s multiplexes rattle with the boom of explosions, the chatter of gunfire and the yelling of bad dialogue. Yes, the summer movie season is loud, but amongst all this sound and fury there have been oases of calm. Moments that don’t rely on pounding the audience’s ear drums to elicit a response, but which use sound sparingly to chill, thrill or move the viewer.
So, in chronological order of release, here is a breakdown of six of the most memorably hushed sequences to be found in movies released between the summer months of May to August. Excluding the CIA break in from Mission Impossible, that one’s just too obvious.
1. Predator (1987): Mac threatens Dillon
Despite being packed with more gunfire and explosions than most small coups, Predator is a film that knows how to use moments of quiet for maximum effect. From the slow build of the early scenes of jungle exploration to Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the Predator stalking each other in the film’s extended finale, director John Mctiernan frequently uses only ambient noise to crank up the tension before releasing it in an ear-shattering orgy of destruction.
However, the film’s single most startling use of quiet comes early on. As Dutch leads his squad on a rescue mission deep in a south American jungle, CIA pencil-pusher Dillon (Carl Weathers), struggling to keep up, slips on a log and gives the group’s position away. As he recovers his footing, Mac (Bill Duke) looms over him and threatens to bleed Dillon ‘real quiet’ and leave him for dead. Bill Duke’s whispered delivery makes the threat so menacing that – in a film that features a hyper-advanced alien’s infrared vision defeated by a thin layer of mud – the fact that Dillon doesn’t soil himself on the spot is Predator’s most ludicrous moment.
2. Robocop (1987): I’d buy that house for a dollar
Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi classic is famous for its broad satire and over-the-top gore, but it doesn’t always get enough credit for the very human story at its core. At its heart, Robocop is about a horribly wronged and damaged man recovering his lost humanity. He achieves this, mostly, through very bloody and very loud vengeance. But what sets him on his trail of revenge is the film’s most atypically sedate sequence.
Murdered police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) has been resurrected as Robocop. When Robo returns to Murphy’s family home he finds it empty and up for sale. Wandering the abandoned structure, the chrome platted copper experiences flashbacks of his past life. The gentle scenes of domestic bliss are accompanied by a mellowing in Basil Poledouris’ previously bombastic score. But, as the realisation of what’s been stolen from him hits home, the supposedly emotionless cyborg begins to feel anger. The strings of the main theme tune return, and Robocop shatters the peace by punching an automated estate agent square in his smug face.
After this scene, the audience is fully on-board with, and happily complicit in, Robocop’s bloody revenge. And it’s the strikingly quiet normality of Murphy’s old life that gets them there.
3. Face/Off (1997): First date dentistry
John Woo’s legendarily wacky shoot-em-up is an exercise in excess. Everything in Face/Off is big, from the scale of its chase scenes and gunfights to the audacity of its central plot conceit: in order to discover the location of a chemical weapon, set to destroy a great chunk of Los Angeles, dour FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) swaps faces with hyperactive terrorist Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage). This set up is really just an excuse for the stars to impersonate each other, and over-act to their heart’s content. Which they most certainly do.
This makes it all the more surprising that, amongst this sea of eye-rolling, teeth-gnashing hamery, one of the film’s smallest, and most restrained, moments is also one of its most affecting.
On the run and stuck with the face of his arch-enemy, Sean Archer is rapidly losing his mind. With nowhere else to go, he turns to his wife (Joan Allen) for help, and faces the unenviable task of convincing her that, whilst he may look like the man who murdered her son, he is in fact her husband. To this end, he tenderly recounts the story of their disastrous first date. As a film that is often in danger of descending into high camp, Nic Cage’s beautifully understated and wistful reading of this brief monologue helps anchor Face/Off in the real world, allowing the audience to be fully invested in the craziness that follows.
4. Cop Land (1997): Shootout at the not OK Corral
Okay, this is pushing the definition of summer blockbuster a bit, but Cop Land stars a Hollywood A-lister and was released in August, so it counts.
As soft-spoken Freddy Heflin, Sylvester Stallone hesitates and mumbles his way through the whole film. For once this is intentional, as Freddy is a small town sheriff so in awe of the big city cops who live within his jurisdiction that he can’t bring himself to confront them when presented with evidence of their corruption. Freddy finds himself caught between internal affairs cop Moe Tilden (Robert DeNiro) and the de-facto leader of the corrupt cops, Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), and spends a great deal of time being yelled at by both of these acting heavyweights.
When the worm turns, and Freddie finally decides to take action, the film heads towards an inevitable, bloody confrontation. But the shootout that follows has a unique twist: Freddy is deaf in one ear and, whilst abducting the witness Freddy needs to take down the bad guys, Jack Rucker (Robert Patrick) has just fired his gun right next to Freddy’s good ear.
What follows can be described, rather tastelessly, as High Noon in deaf-o vision. We get to experience the resulting gun battle as if we are Freddy, every muffled shot, every shattering pane of glass, barely audible over the screeching of the tinnitus that now passes for his sense of hearing.
It’s a sequence that is at once immersive, alienating and uniquely thrilling.
5. What Lies Beneath (2000): Bathtub of doom
Michelle Pfeiffer, temporary paralysis and a rapidly filling bathtub. This should be all the explanation you need.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Robert Zemeckis’ Hitchcockian ghost story – and want to avoid spoilers to a fourteen year old film – we can tell you this: Michelle Pfeiffer plays Claire Spencer. Over the course of the film, Claire becomes convinced her home is being haunted by a murder victim. When she uncovers the truth, she becomes the killer’s next target. In order to stage her suicide, the murderer drugs her and places her in a rapidly filling bathtub.
Initially unable to move anything other than her right foot, Claire desperately attempts to pull the bath’s plug with her toes. For an almost unbearable two minutes of screen time, the running tap, the rattling of the bath chain and the occasional gurgle from Claire are the only audible sounds. As the water passes over her ears, the sound effects become muted – we are hearing what Claire hears, we are trapped with her.
Many horror moves use cacophonous soundtracks, from bloodcurdling screams to screeching violins, to force cheap scares out of their audience. With this sequence, What Lies Beneath stringent use of sound puts us in the place of its protagonist, and by doing so gives the viewer a taste of real terror.
6. Hulk (2003): Unbearable finality
Ang Lee’s divisive superhero flick is a veritable cornucopia of roars, growls and snarls. A lot of which emanate not from Bruce Banner’s (Eric Bana) angry alter-ego Hulk, but Nick Nolte’s unhinged performance as Bruce’s father, David. In fact, a great chunk of the film’s finale involves a shouting match between father and son. Which makes David’s oddly soothing revelation of the truth behind Bruce’s childhood trauma all the more unnerving.
Trying to arrange a meeting with his mutated son, David Banner has broken into the home of Bruce’s girlfriend, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connolly). At first David is confrontational, ranting about how Bruce’s condition is the unintended result of his attempts to go ‘beyond god’s boundaries’. Then, calming, he recounts the events that led to his incarceration in a mental institute for more than 26 years.
Convinced that his genetic experiments on himself will result in his son growing up to become a monster, and robbed of the chance to find a cure, David sets out to murder the boy. We witness these events unfold in flashback, free of dialogue. The incongruous tranquillity generated by David’s voiceover is punctured only by the screams of his younger self and Bruce’s mother, as she desperately tries to save her child.
Thanks largely to Nolte’s almost hypnotically poetic narration, the audience finds itself unexpectedly immersed in a moving, and even profound, examination of loss and regret, smack bang in the middle of a comic book movie about a giant green rage monster.
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