The best thrillers are stories of limitation; their protagonists have certain disabilities or weaknesses that cause them to struggle with overwhelming circumstances. This can be seen in the broken-legged window sleuth portrayed in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the forgetful avenger in Nolan’s Memento, and the insomniac factory worker in Anderson’s The Machinist. Joining the ranks of these films is Hush, a superb thriller by Mike Flanagan that tells the story of a deaf and mute writer, Maddie, fighting off a murderous home invader.
Portraying disabilities effectively can be difficult to achieve in the cinematic medium. However, when done right, it can generate emotions in viewers that allow them to fully integrate themselves into the film and associate with the characters. Nolan achieved this in Memento by using an unorthodox narrative structure, disorienting viewers and making them struggle to find their place in the film’s world, just like the protagonist is forced to do as a result of his defective memory. Flanagan, on the other hand, achieves a similar effect through clever sound design. Sometimes the sound becomes muffled, as if the microphone is underwater, in order to show viewers Maddie’s limited sensory perspective. At other times the sound is completely normal; this is used to great effect when Flanagan shows the murderer toying with Maddie, talking or tapping on her window so that only the viewer can hear. This does a great job of instilling helplessness, so much so that I found myself wanting to reach out and warn Maddie. At one point I found myself thinking that it would be an interesting portrayal of deafness if the entire movie was silent, but this would limit its ability to generate the helplessness that I found to be so engaging. The sound design Flanagan chose to implement is versatile and effective, and I’m happy he chose it. This is the main reason I enjoyed this piece so much; using techniques exclusive to cinema to generate an emotional response within viewers is the hallmark not only of an exciting thriller, but of any quality film.
Clever sound design that plays off of Maddie’s disability isn’t all that the film has going for it, though. With a mute protagonist, it’s easy to fall into the trap of cheesy one-sided dialogue to establish the world; Hush is not a victim of this. Flanagan does a great job of including small tidbits that are subtle and don’t rely on dialogue, but are still emotionally impactful. My favorite of these (minor spoiler ahead) is when it is revealed that the antagonist is a mass murderer. Rather than showing this through cheesy dialogue, Maddie turns over his crossbow and sees a series of carved notches. I also appreciated the fact that the film relies on slow-burning tension rather than cheap jump scares in order to generate anxiety in viewers. Small things like this add up to create an immersive and convincing thriller, the kind of film that other directors should aspire to create.