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Movie Review: The Silence

03/07/2013 08:55 am ET | Updated May 07, 2013

The first time a major feature film came out with this title, it was a 1963 entry by the late Ingmar Bergman -- not exactly the Judd Apatow of the Swedes.

Now here comes Swiss filmmaker Baran bo Odar with The Silence, a film about a serial killer in Germany that's alternately a cry for friendship, an examination of coping with sorrow and a meditation on the nature of complicity. Released in Germany in 2010 and opening Friday (3/8/13) in limited release, it is deeply disquieting, a sleek but low-key story that goes in directions that unsettle.

At the center of the story is a murder, 23 years ago, of a girl. The crime is committed by a maintenance worker, Peer (Ulrich Thomsen), who first befriends a college student named Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring), drinks beer with him,shows him some bondage movies, then takes him along as Peer chases down an actual girl, rapes and kills her. Timo is a silent witness as Peer wraps the body in a rug and dumps her into a river. And then Timo walks away, disappearing while he still can say he didn't actually participate.

But 23 years later, in almost the identical spot, in almost the identical manner, another girl is abducted. As a new generation of police spring into action, the retired police detective (Burghart Klaussner) who resigned in disgrace after failing to solve the case is also catalyzed, even as he reconnects with the still-grieving mother of the first girl. He gets in territorial disputes with the lead detective, Grimmer (Oliver Stokowski), who is assisted by another detective, Jahn (Sebastien Blomberg), still dealing with grief after the recent death of his wife.

One other person is compelled to act: Timo, now a middle-aged family man in another town. He is convinced that this is Peer's work, after all these years -- almost as if he's sending a message out of the past to remind Timo of their unholy bond. It awakens deeply repressed memories in Timo, who feels compelled to track down Peer and see if it was, in fact, him.

As Jahn wrestles with his personal demons, Grimmer tries to explain away the crime as a copycat killing. But the more intuitive Jahn believes there's a connection to the original killing. He and partner Jana (Jule Bowe) reexamine old clues to try to reach new conclusions, but the clash of internal politics, egos and personalities provides just the right level of distraction to keep the cops from truly focusing.

Blomberg and Jule Bowe bring both flinty resolve and genuine anguish to the lead investigators. By contrast, Mohring's Timo is a man who slowly disintegrates, as he realizes what he's done - after finally finding and confronting Peer.

The tension levels jump at key moments; Odar keeps the audience one step ahead of some of the characters -- but not all of them -- at suspenseful moments. With his blandly friendly affect, Thomsen is easily believable as the innocuous psychopath who casually tortures, rapes and murders.

The Silence is chilling stuff, the kind of thriller -- like The Vanishing, let's say -- that leaves you stunned and gulping.

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