In high school, my choir teacher always warned us to not rush the rests. This was something of a fool’s errand. He was talking to a group of tenors, and a little known fact to anybody beyond tenors themselves is that tenors are God’s gift to Choir. Consequently, tenors have never seen a note they didn’t want to meet with great noise and feeling. Asking us to wait for the note was like placing a marshmallow in front of a child and expecting self-restraint.
The music’s in the silence, he would implore. Don’t cheat the rest. The music’s in the silence. His definition of music here went beyond a strictly technical explanation. Music is not just the combination of rhythm, sound, and tone. Music, he implied, was spiritual. It had a soul that glowed brightest in a beat of silence. He explained that all the drama, the suspense, the beauty, was held in that brief moment. The big moments are amplified by the preceding rests.
Horror movies frequently employ the same silence-suspense-climax pattern. Nearly every horror flick is built around the motif of characters walking slowly, footsteps and breath the only sounds, forcing the audience to clench and tighten their muscles while they slide to the edge of their seats. And at the height of that suspense, the Lurking Evil jumps out suddenly. Like music, the big moments are set up by silence and its inherent suspense.
Outside of horror movies, in an age of noise and bombast and distraction, moments of silence are so rare that they’re startling when we come across them. Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 masterpiece, Drive, is defined by this silence. While it can unsettle our modern expectations for catchy soundtracks, witty dialogue, and explosive sound effects, his movie gains its power from silence.
He opens the film with a masterful chase scene. He moves far away from the post-Steve McQueen playbook that Hollywood’s stuck to for decades. He maintains the silence-suspense relationship, but ends the scene with quiet competence instead of a flashy *BANG* moment. You’d be hard pressed to find a quieter and slower chase. And you’d certainly be hard pressed to find one that’s more suspenseful or flawlessly executed.
Refn’s use of silence is especially audacious at the end of the movie. After the camera pans up to Ryan Gosling’s face, neither Gosling nor the camera moves for 45 seconds. And amazingly, it holds us absolutely spellbound. We anxiously search for any sign that Gosling’s character is dead or alive. And with the simplest gesture imaginable, a blink of an eye, we’re flooded with relief. This suspense and relief is dependent on the incredible power of silence.
To say that silence is always used for suspense, though, would be a gross simplification. The movie is centered around the silent yet powerful relationship between Gosling and Carey Mulligan. Refn captures the way that relationships are most powerfully built in the silent moments. Mulligan and Gosling’s lack of dialogue increases our understanding of their love using a form of communication that’s deeper than language. Mulligan herself gave a telling description of the filming process:
Because of the largely wordless scenes that developed between Gosling and Mulligan, huge chunks of dialogue were stripped from the screenplay.
“It was strange, because most of the film I’m just staring at him, and he’s staring at me,” recalls Mulligan.
Movies and music both use silence to create suspense and depth of feeling. In our lives, silence also creates moments of reflection that allow a similar depth of feeling. A few years ago, Louis C.K. joined Conan O’Brien in a meeting of red-headed minds that, unsurprisingly, proved this idea with brilliant and poignant beauty.
Louis C.K. recognizes how we use noise and phones and media to avoid any true human experiences. He says, “You need to build an ability to be yourself and not be doing anything. That’s what these phones have taken away. The ability to just sit there… That’s being a person!” He continues to explain that distracting media is a way to block any feelings of sadness, and that in turn blocks any true and profound feelings of happiness.
So often in our daily lives, we move from Production to Distraction without any Reflection in between. And that’s tragic. Tragic because everything that matters: reflection, suspense, beauty, understanding, it all exists in the space where nothing happens. It all exists in the silence.