Rose (Radha Mitchell) loves her little girl more than words can say. And more often than not, she’s reduced to base expressions of that affection. Take the start of Silent Hill, where Rose appears in mid-panic, running after Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), a longtime sleepwalker who has wandered off into the night, leading her mom on a wild chase across the highway through a nearby stretch of scary woods, and finally to the edge of a cliff that features an odious waterfall. Rose yells “Sharon!” and “Wait for mommy!” repeatedly as she scurries over this bizarre terrain while dressed in her sleepwear — short shorts and skimpy undershirt — bounding in front of oncoming traffic and leaping across ridiculous heights, and reaching the girl just in time to save her from plunging into the thrashing water below.
Phew. Or… maybe not so phew. This opening scene sets up the film’s fundamental troubles. Long on atmosphere, it’s way short on cunning or beguiling. It’s also short on sense, which may be a function of a submerged plot point, that everyone is dead and all that you see here is a series of unattributed hallucinations. Perhaps the simultaneously obscure and derivative plot (screenplay credited to the usually smart Roger Avary) has to do with its basis in a video game. And maybe its lumbering pace and awkward editing — which hardly match up with director Christophe Gans and editor Sébastien Prangère’s previous, strangely elegant collaboration (Brotherhood of the Wolf) — result from some other, unknown influence (whether studio or otherworldly, the effect is the same).
Following its moody, unfathomable start (why are Rose and her husband Chris [Sean Bean] living near a cliff if they know Sharon sleepwalks? Why are doors unlocked?), Silent Hill offers a briefly incoherent sunshiney-idealy respite: sitting beneath a tree in a lovely open field, Rose tells Sharon they’ll be on the road, looking for Silent Hill, the name a town in West Virginia Sharon pronounces during her sleepwalking adventures. Somehow, Rose imagines, going to this place will solve her adopted daughter’s trauma. They both close their eyes and maybe they fall asleep, to suggest that what follows is a dream; or they’re both already dead from the first scene, and what follows is set in some terrible purgatory.
The drive to Silent Hill is utterly ooky, punctuated by Chris’ frantic phone calls to Rose, imploring her not to go — as he looks up on the town’s history on the net and discovers it’s actually closed down, owing to an ongoing coal mine fire beneath the ground. (Somehow, Rose missed this tidbit during what you might presume was her own research.) En route, Rose draws the interest of motorcycle cop named Cybil (Laurie Holden), who wears one serious pair of skintight shiny britches and black knee-high boots, not to mention her helmet and large handgun. Cybil seems equipped to deal with whatever comes her way, but of course, she’s not, because what does come her way makes no sense. To start, when she tries to pull Rose over on the highway, Rose guns her Jeep and heads off down a dark and windy road marked “Silent Hill,” crashing through a large metal fence while instructing her understandably screaming daughter to hang on.
The town itself is as creepy and confused as any of this lead-up intimates (and it’s actually full of noise, as opposed to silence), with weather ranging from dreadful downpours to pervasive ash-in-the-air, sometimes night, sometimes day. As Rose has been knocked out by her car crash, and wakes to find Sharon missing from the car, she spends the rest of the film trying to find her daughter, wandering desolate streets and occasionally running into dread-headed Dahlia (Deborah Kara Unger), another mother of a missing daughter. (Again, the waking in this perverse place suggests Rose might not actually be awake, but again, it doesn’t much matter.)
While Rose persists in her pursuit of resolution (or something), Chris heads toward Silent Hill as well, where he’s stopped by a police inspector, Gucci (Kim Coates), who has found the wife’s Jeep and agrees to bring Chris along to search for her. Gucci tells some spastic story about the town’s coal fire, the “hellish” day in 1974, when “people were dying and disappearing.” (You might think that weirdly poetic and unspecific description, coming from a cop, would worry Chris, but no.) Gucci’s dad died that day, but that doesn’t quite explain his efforts to keep Chris in the dark. Then gain, “the darkness” is pretty much a character here, literally “coming” at certain times and scaring the occasionally-appearing inhabitants into a church, where they gather to “pray,” which means chant and moan and hate on everyone outside.
Sharon also appears intermittently, running through hallways or leading Rose on lengthy chases down dark alleys and into grim basements (at points the music soundtrack turns grindy industrial, at other times bland metal). Conveniently discovering a lighter in her pocket and a series of flashlights that always light up, Rose comes on a number of oddballs, some with miners’ gear and a canary in a cage, some seeming boneless or reminiscent of the scary screamer in Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy,” others marching in jaunty-out-of-joint step as if they’ve emerged from “Thriller” (If only Vincent Price might have provided voiceover explanations). Sometimes their skin flies off like its burning, sometimes they spew bloody-seeming goo. One particular victim-monster has his head tied to his feet, and kind of scoots along the floor as if menacing Rose, who screams bloody murder while standing still and holding her flashlight — again, miraculously working — on her ostensible assailant, who actually never quite makes it very far, seeing as he’s all tied up and bent.
Even if you decide to go with Silent Hill‘s not-making-sense premise (which is, really, fine, as the mindscape here is plainly nightmarish and so not bound by physical or emotional logics), the film slips another mickey into its narrative cocktail. And that would be Christabella (Alice Krige, still looking a lot like the Borg Queen), leader of a kind-of cult inhabiting Silent Hill. Self-identified witch-burners, they announce to Rose that she, Sharon, and Dahlia’s missing girl are all witches and must be burned in order to maintain their own “purity,” whatever that can possibly mean, as they do all resemble ghouls and corpses.
The hordes of folks reciting and grabbing at Rose and Sybil (who shows up to do some ineffective shooting with her big gun) make for a familiar nightmare image, as do Christabella’s invectives: “We fight the demon,” and “We drew a line in the sand.” Barbed wire grows up from a hell-hole below the church floor (it’s as if the Big Bad was re-making its appearance in Buffy), a previous victim appears looking burnt, bloody, and gooey, they burn a designated witch (whose skin yuckily melts and falls off). All the while, Rose keeps telling Sharon, “It’ll be okay, baby.” Er. No.
Eventually Christabella starts to sound a little too familiar, especially as Rose interprets her. Trying to win over the corpsey folks, Rose describes herself as coming from “a world outside,” then explains, “This woman uses your fear to control you.” This comes very late in the proceedings (which run 127 minutes), when your eyes are well-glazed over, and you might be forgiven for thinking maybe the movie has suddenly turned into a critique of the war on terror. Or maybe not.