I think some filmmakers enjoy forcing their audiences into never-ending guessing games. You can watch a movie repeatedly and never once come to a satisfying conclusion. Hidden is a film like that. It opens on a very promising note before slowly going downhill; it goes so slowly that, up until the final ten minutes, we still have hope that it might actually go somewhere. Then we reach the ending, which I guess is supposed to be a plot twist, and only then do we realize that there will be no real payoff, except for more questions. The annoying thing is that some serious talent went into this movie, not the least of which is Sjur Aarthun, whose muddy cinematography adds nicely to the atmosphere. Credit also to editor Lars Apneseth for his suspenseful pacing and genuinely frightening cuts.
The mood is so thoroughly established that it’s a shame writer/director Pål Øie didn’t put more effort into a cohesive screenplay. True to its psychological nature, this is a story of misdirection and secrecy, with scenes that are both vague and understated. At times, we’re not even sure if what we’re seeing is really happening. Some great movies have been made in much the same way, so I’m puzzled as to why it doesn’t work in Hidden. Maybe it’s because the plot is grounded in events and facts that can’t be interpreted figuratively, which means there’s no adequate way to so freely shift back and forth between fantasy and reality. Or maybe it’s because virtually every buildup scene ends with a fizzle instead of a bang, at which point we start second-guessing ourselves as to what actually took place.
The story begins in 1989. From the middle of the woods emerges a filthy, frightened young boy, who’s clearly running away from something. He then wanders onto an open road, where he narrowly escapes being run over by a truck. Unfortunately, by swerving to avoid the boy, the truck driver rams into a parked car and causes it to burst into flames. The lone survivor of the explosion was another young boy, who when it happened was in the woods answering the call of nature. Both boys stare at the fire for a few seconds before turning to face each other, shock and fear in their eyes.
Flash forward twenty years. Kai Koss (Kristoffer Joner), who has spent years trying to forget the past, has returned home to bury his mother. Brief flashbacks reveal she was a deranged woman who would nearly drown Kai in a bathtub before locking him in a subterranean chamber. Kai has inherited her estate, which he would like nothing more than to burn to the ground. Indeed, it’s an intensely creepy place – dark and shadowy, rotted both inside and out, all but isolated in the middle of the woods. It reminds Kai of every bad thing that ever happened to him, and upon entering, he’s tormented by a series of horrific visions.
Then things take a sinister turn. A couple of campers have gone missing, and it seems they were last seen inside the old house. The locals believe Kai might have something to do with it. Kai believes it connects to a shadow from his past named Peter, who went missing twenty years ago and is presumed dead.
There are good things about this film. I appreciated, for instance, that Øie relied on the psychological rather than the supernatural, the latter a perfect vehicle for overblown special effects. In horror movies, not all bad things have to be explained by definable outside forces; the mind, it seems to me, is always much more frightening than anything “real,” if you get my meaning. I also enjoyed the consistently quiet tone of the film, which allows for the pop out scares – and there are quite a few of them – to really take effect. All the same, there does come a point when a film can become too psychological; Hidden is so focused on playing mind games that it often loses sight of basic coherency.
Who, for example, is the woman working in the hotel, where Kai is staying and just happens to be located within walking distance from his mother’s house? What is the meaning of her dialogue? A shot later in the film is supposed to resolve the issue, but it only left me scratching my head. Is this woman even real? Or was she a cinematic throwback to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining? I love a good psychological tease, but this is just maddening.
And then there’s the final shot, which I guess is meant to reveal what has really been going on. Maybe it does, but can you honestly say you know for sure? It seems the purpose of the plot is not to tell a story so much as continuously jerk your chain, which can only be fun up to a certain point. I can recommend certain things about this movie. It’s brilliantly photographed. It creates a sense of dread right from the start, and it maintains it all throughout by means of consistently creepy visuals. It will make you jump at times. The performances, while low key, are effective. So why couldn’t Øie make something more out of it all? Many words will be used to describe Hidden, but I suspect “ambiguous,” “confusing,” and “slow” will be at the top of the list. If you see it, you’ll understand why.