Since the arrival of the ‘talkie’ in the 1920s, cinema has by no means lost its visual and aural power. However, audiences have come to associate cinema heavily with its dialogue. The likes of Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin have given us endlessly quotable lines (and thousands of cringe t-shirts.)
Now, when a film strips back its dialogue, it’s deemed ‘brave’ and ‘experimental.’ A lack of dialogue never detracts from the power of these films, nor does it make a case for cinema as a purely visual medium, but it does allow the actors and filmmakers to communicate to their audiences in new and exhilarating ways.
With the arrival of All is Lost on Netflix this week, we’re taking a look at the best contemporary films with almost no dialogue. Just keep the popcorn rummaging to a minimum, yeah?
All is Lost
The only dialogue in J. C. Chandor’s 2013 films arrives at the very beginning, with a voice over that alludes to the protagonist losing everything but “body and soul” on his failed voyage at sea – and, of course, an overdue “Fuuuuuuuuuck!” from Robert Redford’s character later on, as yet another ship passes by without hope of rescue.
All is Lost is a minimalist film that simply depicts a man lost at sea. We get no backstory, no explanation, nor any real resolution. All we see is Robert Redford – aged 77 in one of his best performances – desperately trying to save his boat from shipwreck.
There are some absolutely gorgeous shots, such as the gentle bobbing of his yellow dinghy in shark-infested waters, and some great technical mastery as the boat flips 360 degrees in one continuous take. This is bracing, subtle, heart-in-your-mouth cinema.
A Quiet Place
Jim from The Office has come a long way since pranking Dwight. He’s taken the lead role in the new Prime series Jack Ryan and also wrote, directed, and starred in the best horror of the year (sorry, Hereditary).
A Quiet Place takes place in an apocalyptic future where monsters hunt by detecting sound. As a result, he and his family communicate using sign language. Early on, we learn that his wife is pregnant. How will they cope with the uncontrollable cries of a new-born? This is a great, simple premise – like all great horror – and is executed with some real imagination.
For a sophomore feature, Krasinski is incredibly accomplished behind and in front of the camera, providing scares and warmth in a story that doubles up as a tear-jerking family drama.
“There will be no subtitles, dialogue or voiceover.” These are the words that open The Tribe, which takes place in a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf. The audience has to interpret what the characters are communicating (unless you’re proficient in Ukrainian sign language), which places the audience in the same helpless position as those living under the evils of the post-Soviet institution.
The ethics of the film are questionable – concerns have been raised over the depiction of teenage nudity and graphic scenes of abortion – and it’s a bleak, bleak film. But this is an impressively orchestrated idea that speaks volumes, without ever saying a word.
What else should I check out?
In the City of Sylvia (2007)
Under the Skin (2013).
Words by Liam Taft