The Silence, an assured first feature from Swiss-born director Baran Bo Odar, has more on its mind than most crime thrillers. Among other things, the movie is about the banality of evil, and its precipitating event — the rape and panicked murder of an 11-year-old girl just outside her bucolic home town in Germany — is handled with matter-of-fact naturalism and a disciplined feel for the horror of what we can't see.
The killer, Peer Sommer (played by Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, last seen in Susanne Bier's In a Better World), is an impassive apartment building caretaker with an underdeveloped sense of guilt. Having methodically disposed of the body, he gets back into his car to drive home. His appalled passenger, a recent acquaintance named Timo (Wotan Wilke Moehring), who may or may not be more than a witness to the brutal act, bolts soon after.
The two men will not meet again for 23 years, when a second girl goes missing on the same day and in the same place as the first victim's bicycle was found abandoned in a golden field of corn. Moving expertly back and forth across that gap in time, The Silence frames the two crimes within many forms of culpability, complicity and the disintegration of a community. If you come away as satisfied as I did, it won't be because the director is out to reassure you.
Part domestic melodrama, part police procedural with an edge of black comedy, The Silence (which Baran adapted from a novel by Jan Costin Wagner) takes its time exhuming long-dormant malignancies in this sleepy town that no amount of new building construction can cover up. History repeats itself as tragedy and farce. For the second time, parents discover what it is to fear for the life of a child who has been driving them crazy. Once again the police scramble to follow a slew of false leads and dead ends, fighting petty turf wars as they go.
A lonely woman embarks on an ill-advised affair. A bereaved young detective returns to work far too soon and throws himself into the case, violating protocol on every front. And a man who has built himself a fancy new life with a wife and children suddenly finds it necessary to leave town. Or not.
Odar rarely overplays his hand. Terror begins as the exchange of banal civilities on a sunlit park bench and escalates without much of a rise in temperature. The harbingers of doom are familiar — the steady drip of water, the rustle of corn, a slow-motion ride on a swing, a kitchen knife hovering dangerously close to a pregnant belly — yet they're expertly deployed, along with a quiet lunar score, to extend the low-level dread in which everyday aggravation may signal worse to come, or it may fade away.
There are lapses: the surreal fairground fantasy is a bit much, and the endless parade of vulnerable girls and women begs for a visit from a girl with a dragon tattoo. Toward the end, The Silence springs a fairly textbook surprise — then opens out one more time. What you'll carry away is the film's austere sympathy for the struggles of its benighted characters and its bleak conviction that justice and resolution mostly happen in movies.
This is not that kind of fairy tale. There are reasons why the story of the rapist and his companion may be read backward but never forward, and why almost everyone else in this disintegrating community has been standing still or running in place. "When does it end?," the unhinged young detective pleads with someone who has survived the worst a mother can endure. "Never," she says, and continues on her daily jog through the forest.