Saturday, April 26, 2014

Horror Is Quiet (A Hijacking)

Horror has its own vocabulary, its own set of standardized conventions. We all know that, of course. When we go to horror movies, we expect jump scares galore as abominations hove into the frame, misshapen men menacingly wave sharp implements, and arterial spray soaks the surroundings. Horror novels have their own terrifying techniques, what with lovingly written descriptions of stiff wires thrust through ocular cavities and the color of intestines as they spill from a slit abdomen. Do you get what I'm saying? Horror is visceral, in your face, transgressive, and typically about a subtle as a sledgehammer. Put more simply, horror is loud. Or rather most of it is, because every once in a while along comes a piece like Tobias Lindholm's 2012 Danish film A Hijacking that reminds us how the best horror is very, very quiet.

A Hijacking centers on two men -- Mikkel Hartmann, a cook on the cargo ship MV Rozen, and Peter Ludvigsen, CEO of the vessel's parent company. Days away from making port, the ship gets hijacked by Somali pirates, sparking a months-long negotiation as the crew's life hanging in the balance. So far so standard, but the film doesn't unfold in the cliched manner you might expect. Make no mistake, this isn't Captain Phillips or Executive Decision or any number of Hollywood potboilers where all that stands between a group of innocents and death is a cadre of well-armed military types. There are no soldiers, no cavalry, no choreographed fight scenes, and no high-tension mock executions. The only thing keeping Mikkel and the rest of the crew alive is his boss' voice at the other end of an unreliable satellite-phone.

The whole thing proves absolutely petrifying.

How? Besides the obvious fear of death, Lindholm taps into the disorientation of culture shock, of having your everyday expectations entirely erased. The audience doesn't actually see the titular hijacking. Instead, viewers watch Mikkel and the crew cowering on the Rozen's bridge as malnourished Africans wave AK-47s and scream at them. In a film that features at least three languages, it's noteworthy that Lindholm never subtitles the bits in Somali. Viewers find themselves thrust into Mikkel's perspective, trying to placate unintelligible captors and earning a smile when successful or an assault rifle waved at one's face when not. Human filth piles up in the corner of the cabin to which the crew finds itself confined, often discussed but never seen. The pirates grant Mikkel a phone call with his wife, only to interrupt it halfway through by pressing his head to the table with a gun barrel, his audible terror a mere negotiating tactic. The galley grows increasingly wretched as it gets stripped bare, but most horrifying part happens when the food runs out entirely. At that point, the pirates bring Mikkel up onto the deck, force a knife into his hands, and make him knee before a bound goat. He's the cook, and as such he has to slaughter their next meal. We don't actually watch the grisly work, the camera staying focused on Mikkel's anguished face. But we do hear the dying animal's desperate attempts to breathe. Those rasping, liquid gurgles prove more affecting than a whole sorority's worth of screaming coeds. Let me say it again: The best horror is quiet.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Constantine Savvides)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

It reminds me of the comparison I've been making between The Wire and A Game of Thrones (full disclosure: I don't watch the TV show so I'm mostly comparing The Wire to the novels). Both aim at showing a bird's-eye-view of corrupt, fluid, and dangerous power structures, both feature a number of characters for whom violence is stock-in-trade, and both are fascinated simultaneously with heroism and with its limitations. But while Game of Thrones is notorious for its high body count, one of the impressive things about The Wire is how few people actually die. Indeed, on the police side, The Wire's cast actually has a life expectancy significantly longer than the average member of the squeaky-clean NCIS.

The result of this restraint, I think, is that death is much more horrifying in The Wire than in Game of Thrones. When one officer gets shot in season 1, that forces a lot of deep introspection--not to mention awkward familial discussions about the wisdom of such a perilous occupation--than even a death would have. And when beloved characters do die, it's rare enough to be felt as a senseless waste, rather than background noise.

Which I guess just proves a point that audiologists have known forever: the psychological impact of a signal is based on its volume relative to background noise, not its absolute volume. A loud scream at a rock concert is inaudible, while the sound of a quiet growl in the darkness can be deafening.

Loren Eaton said...

It sounds as though there might be some similarities between those shows and this film. (I haven't the series.) I won't spoil the ending, but let's just say that your point about the growl is spot-on.