We’ve all been there: it’s opening weekend, the theatre gallery is packed, and the plethora of teenagers (and even a few twentysomethings) in the audience don’t know to quiet down and let other people enjoy the movie. Excitement over an anticipated, action-packed blockbuster is one thing, but a gaggle of over-excited high schoolers in the surrounding rows of seats can be more distracting and annoying than a cellphone.
It would appear some movie directors plan for this, and every so often you come across a scene so shocking, or horrific, or plain awe-inspiring that the only reasonable reaction is to shut one’s trap and take it all in. Let’s just appreciate the few scenes capable of rendering a movie audience so quiet you can hear a pin drop.
5 Incendies – The Bus
Adapted from the play of the same name by Lebanese-Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad, the 2010 drama Incendies was one of the most critically acclaimed Canadian films of all time, and even contended for Best Foreign Language picture at the Oscars (though it lost to In a Better World). Directed by Denis Villeneuve, who also helmed the similarly-acclaimed thriller Prisoners starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, Incendies is a mystery that spans years, conflicts and ruined lives. Its protagonist is Nawal Marwan, a Canadian woman of (presumably) Lebanese descent, who dies shortly before the movie begins and whose life is investigated by her surviving twin children. In time, they learn that in her youth Nawal was an active, even iconic figure in a Middle Eastern civil war.
Nawal’s path to revolution begins when a bus carrying her and several Muslim refugees is stopped by Christian militia along a desert road. In an abrupt and horrifying display of violence, the soldiers open fire on the vehicle, killing everyone inside except for Nawal, a Muslim woman and her young daughter. Nawal is able to escape execution by identifying herself as Christian, and in a futile attempt to save the young girl from the burning vehicle, claims the little one is her own daughter. The ruse doesn’t work, unfortunately, and when the girl runs back for her actual mother, one of the soldiers shoots her without hesitation. The brutal scene is one of the most appalling—and sadly realistic—displays of sectarian violence ever depicted in a film, and one that will reduce most audiences to hushed silence.
4 Drive – The Motel
Nicolas Winding Refn’s slick 2011 thriller Drive had more tonal shifts in two minutes than most movies have in two hours. Advertised as a car chase-heavy crime thriller, Refn’s film was very much the opposite, a mostly subdued, even psychological drama about a stunt performer moonlighting as a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) and how his cool exterior masks a terrifying killer instinct. In its 100-minute running time, Drive switches between crime thriller and romance before settling into a gore-filled slasher flick groove in its final act.
Perhaps its most major turning point comes roughly halfway through the movie, after a botched pawn shop robbery in rural L.A. County leaves one of the driver’s partners dead on the road. He and his surviving accomplice flee to a nearby motel, where a TV news report tips him off that the other collaborator, Blanche (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks), knows more than she lets on. Donning his driving gloves, he coldly slaps and interrogates the gunwoman and learns that the robbery was a setup. However, she is quickly murdered by two mob heavies, who the driver quickly disarms and dispatches in a brief but horrifying sequence of violence that neither the film’s trailers nor first act even hinted at. The audience must then spend the rest of the movie trying to reconcile the driver’s kindly relations with a neighbouring family with his hidden penchant for sudden, bloody destruction—which only increases as Drive builds toward its climax.
3 Apocalypse Now – “The horror. The horror.”
The 1979 war epic by Francis Ford Coppola—though “psychological horror film” is probably a better descriptor—climaxes not with a massive battle but with an atmospheric murder. Special Forces Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) has finally found the enigmatic Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) he has been sent to kill in order to put a stop to the officer’s tyrannical behaviour. After conversing with the stoic colonel, Willard decides to carry out the execution not for the sake of following orders but to honour Kurtz’s death wish.
Approaching stealthily in the midst of a celebration put on by the colonel’s tribal followers, Willard corners Kurtz and attacks him with a machete so the older man can “go out like soldier, standing up.” Cut to the furious peak of “The End” by the Doors and actual documentary footage of villagers slaughtering a cow, Willard is shown repeatedly slashing at Kurtz, before the general collapses and breaths his final words “the horror… the horror,” marvelling at the brutality of war and the human capacity for violence. His dying sigh is heard once more in Apocalypse Now’s understated closing moments, reverberating in the viewer’s ears as they contemplate the film’s uncomfortable message.
2 The Silence of the Lambs – Fava Beans and Chianti
Jonathan Demme’s 1991 thriller not only launched Anthony Hopkins to stardom in North America but introduced the world to cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter—well, introduced the most popular version of Lecter, that is; Brian Cox had played the hungry doctor in Manhunter five years prior. In any case, Hopkins’ Academy Award-winning performance gripped audiences everywhere, with the Welsh actor slipping between cool, probing psychoanalysis and carnivorous violence with not even a second’s pause, all the while speaking in a snakelike voice the actor said he based on the distinctive lilts of Truman Capote and Katherine Hepburn.
Hopkins’ most unforgettable moment as Lecter occurs in his first scene, partway through his icy and ultimately aborted initial conversation with FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster in another Oscar-winning role). When the rookie agent attempts to resist the imprisoned doctor’s scathing critiques of her personality and methods by verbally biting back—so to speak—he roughly slides back her questionnaire and calmly says, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver, with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” He follows up his subtle threat with a sudden, unmistakeable hiss that stuns both Starling and the audience into silence. The vocal tic had been improvised by Hopkins during filming and has become infamous in its own right, effectively tied to any impression or parody of Lecter ever since.
1 The Dark Knight – The Joker’s Tape
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was the biggest movie of 2008, possibly even of the entire last decade. Perhaps the purest Batman movie ever made, the film—which drew more on modern thrillers than the superhero genre—pit the Caped Crusader against his iconic nemesis, the Joker, who was played spectacularly by the late Heath Ledger. The Australian actor’s twitchy, perpetually hunched interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime alternately wowed the audience or made them burst out in laughter through the film’s first act, but a single scene—heck, a single line—helped cement the performance as one of the year’s best.
To send a message to Batman and Gotham City in general, the Joker kidnaps, tortures and kills a civilian named Brian Douglas, who had been dressing up in a makeshift Batsuit and carrying out his own brand of vigilante justice at night. The Joker sends the media a video tape of the act, filmed in shaky handheld camera—directed by Ledger himself, according to the Internet Movie Database. When the bound, terrified would-be Robin Hood is unable to meet his captor’s eyes, the Joker roars “LOOK AT ME!” from off-screen. The silence in the following couple seconds is thick enough to cut with one of the Joker’s many knives, and there’s no doubt Ledger’s intensity in the scene contributed to his posthumous Oscar win the following spring.