The phrase “Monkey’s Paw,” lifted from the O. Henry short story of the same name, describes a miraculous wish granted with an unintended cost. In the story, a boy wished back from the grave returns, but as an animated corpse. Silent Panic, the new film by Kyle Schadt, feels like the product of such a wish.
We open on an ex-con, Eagle (Sean Nateghi) and his friends who find a corpse stashed in their car while camping. Eagle refuses to call the cops, fearing that they will pin the murder on him. The friends, Bobby (Joseph Martinez) and Dominic (Jay Habre), try to caution Eagle to report the corpse but fail.
The cops had very little evidence and Eagle was convicted and jailed on their word, like Making a Murderer’s Stephen Avery. This formative experience guides his decision and creates the central conflict of the film. What follows is a taut nail-whittling thriller somewhere between Calibre (2018) and Out of Time (2003). Eagle, Bobby, and Dominic hot-potato crisis after crisis to keep their cool as well get rid of the Jane Doe stinking up their car.
The Black Magic of Kyle Schadt
I bring up the Monkey’s Paw because Silent Panic is effortlessly one of the most dynamically paced, well-engineered, and tactical thrillers I’ve seen in years. Every moment of action feels stitched together by a master craftsman at the height of his powers. Kyle Schadt’s skills as a career editor shine throughout the film. Action, consequence, and complication cut back and forth with visual savagery that rattles the viewer. Such an instinct for pacing and pressure feels supernaturally given, and one can only imagine the cost.
Thankfully one’s imagination doesn’t need to travel very far, as the cost becomes clear as soon as the characters speak. The naturalistic, Tarantino-esque dialog of Schadt’s script flows with all the grace and cool of an anti-drug PSA. They discuss music and the quirks of modern slang with what should sound like the grace of outlaws. It sounds more like things overheard at a CTE survivors’ seminar. This effectively hobbles the characters, forcing them to limp through their lines as two-dimensional shades. The scenes between the corpse-in-the-car story, in which Bobby struggles with his conscience and Eagle fights with his girlfriend, are insufferable.
Against the skill of Schadt’s direction and editing, these sins of the script are all the worse. Even the sound design and score seem opposed to the characters’ conversations, as both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds blare and whine to drown out dialog.
Shadt knows how to craft the circumstances around a story, and knows how to compose them together. But the script makes me nostalgic for classic silent films, or at least largely wordless ones like Fritz Lang’s M (1931) or JT Petty’s Soft for Digging (2001). This constant tug-of-war between mediocre script and masterful technique results in a fascinating study of why both aspects of direction are vital. Stylish, smart, and unrelenting, Silent Panic has more in its tool kit than most indie films, but its script is less the dove released at the end of the magic trick, and more the bird that died in the hat.
Purpose or Problem?
Perhaps there is some small magic in watching three shockingly dumb guys negotiate a high octane thriller. Every decision these men make seems like the worst possible one. Worse, the lies they tell to cover their tracks would confound any logical mind. Their dialogue and choices seem utterly bizarre, but perhaps we lose ourselves when faced with hard truths. This might sound like mental jiu-jitsu attempting to escape the armbar of bad dialog, and maybe it is. I’m willing to jump through these hoops for a film as well put-together as this one.
How else would I excuse moments like Bobby’s distraught mother’s “I’ve been baking cookies because I don’t know what to do?” Or Eagle indignantly screaming, “Who the fuck you calling scared? You’re probably scared, a fuckin’ scared little dog probably fuckin’ pissin’ down your leg.” Either Schadt intimately understands the various ways Tragedy makes fools of us all, or lines like these are just stupid.
Despite this juxtaposition, the film presents a compulsively watchable journey into hell for three men broken apart by the threat of change. The discovered corpse stands in for the winds of life blowing all our boats off course. It’s a cruel, gruesome metaphor for the changes we run from rather than accept. Eagle refuses to deal with violence and criminality that follow him from jail. Dominic wishes to keep believing the lie that he is a good person, despite refusing the call to heroism. Bobby doesn’t want to believe he would ever go back to drugs. The brutal answers to all these anxieties rot in the trunk of Eagle’s car, for all of them to find.
Silent Panic is a beautifully constructed cautionary tale about the terrors of a life lived at random. Schadt masterfully shot, skillfully plotted, and deftly edited the film to perfection. It’s also full of cardboard characters and dialog presumably written during a concussion. These two undeniable truths come together and alchemize into one of the most electrifying movie experiences I’ve had all year.
Perfect Double Feature With: The frenetic and wonderfully fucked up crime thriller Running Scared from Wayne Kramer starring the late Paul Walker (in his best role, come and fight me Fast and the Furious fans) and horror-mainstay Vera Farmiga.