‘Silent River’ Review: Lynchian Vibes Help This Motel-Set Indie Puzzler, But Only So Much

“Yellow” director Chris Chan Lee digs into his evocative setting but the results never quite come together

Silent River
Gravitas Ventures

As locations go, the desert motel has long been an evocative symbol for transience in movie narratives, atmospherically suitable for all manner of escape scenarios and reckonings. It’s also a conveniently economy-minded setting for any micro-budgeted mood piece with the existential on its mind, which Korean-American writer-director Chris Chan Lee’s perplexing “Silent River” most assuredly is, even if its self-conscious mix of the mysterious and the mundane never quite coalesces.

Lee is most known for his 1997 debut about Asian-American high school kids, “Yellow,” which helped introduce John Cho to audiences and, along with a handful of other films that year (including the Cho-starring, Justin Lin–co-directed “Shopping for Fangs”) signaled a new indie visibility for Asian-American filmmakers. (They were dubbed the “Class of ’97.”) “Silent River” is only Lee’s third feature, which may be why it shows he’s still very much an indie filmmaker at heart, preferring what defies easy interpretation to what’s obvious.

From the start, we have questions, but they’re the kind that keep us involved. A trucker-cap-wearing hatchback driver, whom we later learn is named Elliott (West Liang), pulls into a motel parking lot and appears to be limping, bleeding from his hand and, once in his room, unable to rest easy. He tells a stranger by the pool that he’s waiting for his wife Julie, but later Elliott is prickly and defensive with her on the phone, and we gather their separation isn’t his choice. He also projects video of them in happy times on the motel room wall, but the ominous viola-and-reed-driven music score (by Brian Ralston) accompanying Elliott during these early scenes is more like something out of a Hitchcock suspense film rather than a broken romance.

So we wait with our unanswered questions as things get weirder — visions of a man in a bull mask, an invisible barrier in the desert, Elliott vomiting up a gold coin. The arrival of a beautiful woman named Greta (Amy Tsang) checking in to the room next door only adds to the elliptical nature of this scenario: Do they know each other? Do they think they know each other? And why is there a lifeless body in the cardboard box Greta brought with her?

It’s not surprising to learn from Lee’s writing about “Silent River” that a key inspiration is David Lynch, because Lee and director of photography Norbert Shieh do pretty much all they can to convey what’s eerily lonely and perspective-bending about biding time in a motel room (angles, colors, creeping pans) and then what’s off-putting about sharing that experience with someone you don’t entirely trust but are drawn toward figuring out.

The problem is that the careful aura of intimacy and otherworldliness is too extended a note. By the time “Silent River” starts explaining itself — who these people are, what’s at stake — it’s too awkward a narrative frame to suddenly begin accepting it as a romantic sci-fi thriller. In the first hour, thanks to Liang’s commanding physicality, Elliott’s fragmented solitude feels palpable, and the movie’s early-’90s-style doing-its-own-thing indie vibes are strong. But Lee wears out his sinister dreamer’s welcome when he starts to allow genre needs to take over. (The “Twin Peaks” dilemma, one might call it.)

“Silent River” feels intensely personal, but also impossibly closed off. But is that so bad? Ultimately, for all its awkwardness and attentiveness, its grab-bag of tones and problematic pacing, there’s a lot about “Silent River” that gives one faith in off-the-beaten-path cinema, from how much Lee cares about what his images and sounds convey, to how little he cares whether your narrative questions are satisfactorily answered. And while he may not be a great actor’s director, he’s highly attuned to bodies and faces in a frame, which is something you can’t say about a lot of filmmakers who work way more often than Lee does.

But also, he gets motels. They’re where nothing happens, but potentially everything. (It happens to movies, too.)

“Silent River” opens in US theaters Oct. 14 and on demand Oct. 25 via Gravitas Ventures.