7 Memorable Movie Characters Who Barely Say A Damn Thing

Charlie Chaplin 7 Memorable Movie Characters Who Barely Say A Damn Thing

Most often, the moments we remember in movies consist of catchy one-liners we can repeat with our friends over and over for days, weeks, months, even years after seeing a particular movie for the first time. Sometimes, though, a character is memorable for what they don’t say. These are sometimes referred to as mute characters, even though they’re not technically, like, physically mute. They just don’t say much. They speak more through their actions, reactions and body language. And in some cases they steal the show.

There’s a history for this in film, since the birth of movies was a silent one. Movies were a silent medium for the first couple decades of the medium’s inception, and so emphasis was put on a performer’s physicality, and once the close-up came into fashion, much was made of a character’s facial expression. Although sound came to provide dialogue and music and dancing and general loudness, moments of silence still had tremendous efficacy in on-screen storytelling. In fact, the contrast between noise and silence may have made these quiet moments even more effective.

Mute movie characters, or characters who just say very little, can therefore be extremely compelling. It makes the few words they sometimes say, or the little expressions they make if they never do get around to using their words, that much more crucial and a source of much closer attention. Here are 7 characters who have used silence to outstanding effect long after sound came to dominate the landscape of movies.

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1) Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest 7 Memorable Movie Characters Who Barely Say A Damn Thing

One of the most absolutely enjoyable aspects of 1975′s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the manic energy of a young Jack Nicholson. His presence is what breathes life into the film, just as his character Mac breathes life into the mental institution ward in which he’s been committed. The perfect counterweight to Mac’s non-stop squawk is Chief, believed by apparently everyone in the hospital to be both deaf and mute, given that he does not respond to anyone who speaks to him in any way.

One of many breakthroughs Mac makes while in the psych ward is learning that Chief is actually capable of speech, which he finds out when Chief says “thank you” for a piece of gum Mac shares with him. It turns out it’s all an act Chief puts on so other people will leave him alone. It makes both of them actors, playing a part to draw a certain response from the people around them and to avoid alternative treatment. The relationship between the two characters is one of the most grounding features of the movie, and Chief’s final redemption is made all the more triumphant by the wordlessness.

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2) Edward in Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands 7 Memorable Movie Characters Who Barely Say A Damn Thing

It’s funny how you can go back and watch an actor’s old work and be like oh yeah, that’s what made them such a big deal. The Johnny Depp of today still manages to produce some decent work, but I’m sure a lot of people are wishing he would find a way to recapture the magic he made back in 1990 with Edward Scissorhands. Maybe he’s just too cool to play an innocent creature like Edward these days.

Without getting into too much boring history, Edward is a throwback to German movies of the 1920s, the stuff you watch in university film classes in black and white with the high contrast lighting and heavy makeup and exaggerated acting. Tim Burton is in love with that stuff. He draws from it in Edward Scissorhands but instead of melodramatic acting he uses the strange looking makeup and lack of speech to create a weird but beautiful character, an unfinished creation trying to understand the world by observing and learning as much as he can. The key to all this is Depp’s eyes; they’re every bit as expressive as an old silent film actor’s but with the subtle appropriate to modern cinema. They bring the fairytale aspects together with the absurd surrealism of the suburban setting, and express as much meaning and emotion as thousands of words would have been able to do.

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3) Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine 7 Memorable Movie Characters Who Barely Say A Damn Thing

In a way, the vow of silence taken by Paul Dano’s character Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine is a simple narrative gimmick designed to reflect the stakes and tension that build up until they reach a boiling point. It’s as if the whole movie is geared toward our expectation that at some point he has to speak. Previous characters like Chief in Cuckoo’s Nest have taught us to expect this. And so when he finally does break his vow with a string of profanities, it’s like a sweet release for all of us.

It also reflects the tension in the rest of the story involving a family whose dynamic is spiraling out of control in the same way their rusty old van is barely functioning. But Dwayne’s silence possesses some additional worth in that it kind of really accurately depicts the angst and frustration that comes along with adolescence, as well as the disillusionment and despair that can often result from the loss of childhood innocence and hopes and dreams and everything. He has this ideal scenario set out for himself that’s represented by the discipline of not speaking, and then a little crappy curveball life throws at him throws off all his plans, resulting in a break in his silence. But in the end he finds his voice again, and we get the sense that he’ll be able to adapt, as most teenagers learn to do, and things will be relatively ok.

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4) Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II

The Godfather Part II 7 Memorable Movie Characters Who Barely Say A Damn Thing

Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone may not be mute or silent, but he is certainly very quiet. Marlon Brando laid the groundwork for this character’s vocal presence, playing him with tremendous restraint and control, which we tend not to expect from mob boss characters typically. He comes off as forceful and authoritative, but also patient and thoughtful. Of course, this also makes him seem more calculating and a little frightening in his coldness, but it simultaneously makes him rather sympathetic.

De Niro takes this to the next level. Assisted by the fact that most of his lines are in Italian, he had to make the role physically and emotionally expressive to connect more with English-speaking audiences that would be stuck reading his words. Not that De Niro needs help with expressing himself through body language. The best example of this silence used to powerful effect is the famous staircase murder scene, with De Niro hiding around the corner, face frozen, coldly shooting and killing his victim with relative calm and unsettling silence, and of course not a word.

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5) Mitch in Waiting…

Waiting 7 Memorable Movie Characters Who Barely Say A Damn Thing

There probably isn’t an adequate segue to transition from The Godfather to Waiting… so screw it. This movie was a hilarious little independent film that was clearly influenced by the work of Kevin Smith’s early material, primarily Clerks. It takes the world of misfit working young people and transplants it into a more contemporary scene, where dissatisfied characters in their 20s work in the restaurant service industry as they figure out the rest of their lives.

The Silent Bob character is mostly peripheral in Smith’s films, providing comedic reaction shots and then nuggets of wisdom in the few moments he’s allowed to speak near the end of his movies. I find the way director Rob McKittrick uses Mitch more interesting here. He’s even more of a surrogate for the audience, listening to characters confide in him and literally trying to interact and getting ignored at every moment. They proceed without a care of what he thinks (or what we think). He floats through their world observing everything, as do we.

But then the hilarious twist at the end is that he’s actually awful. He’s a total douche. He has his say at the end and it doesn’t contain a trace of wisdom but is just angry. It’s funny to be sure, but we realize at this point that he’s as awful a person as everyone else in this movie. It’s a clever trick that turns the tables on anyone who is judgmental of any of these characters by saying look, you’ve been watching this whole time, and if you think you’re better than these folks, you’re lying to yourself.

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6) Hattie in Sweet and Lowdown

Sweet and Lowdown 7 Memorable Movie Characters Who Barely Say A Damn Thing

Woody Allen has produced so much work that a lot of it inevitably gets overlooked. You think of Woody and you think of Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and then his revival period with movies like Match Point and Midnight in Paris. But he’s literally made a movie almost every year since the 70s, and so movies like Sweet and Lowdown can get lost in the shuffle. And that’s too bad because it, and so many others considered “minor” Woody Allen, is awesome.

One of the best parts of Sweet and Lowdown is the character of Hattie, played by Samantha Morton, probably most famous for being the pre-cog girl in Minority Report. She doesn’t say much in that one, but in Sweet and Lowdown she is literally mute. The key, though, is that she can hear, and so she falls in love with the Sean Penn jazz musician character Emmet.

She got an Oscar nomination and tons of acclaim because she was another character who reminded people of the days of silent movie actors, who had to be interesting without saying anything, which meant lots of facial reactions to things, lots of personality expressed physically, and charm captured completely through their eyes. There’s something magical just about the way she looks at Emmet that is reminiscent of how much people in real life can show about themselves simply through the act of looking. It’s remarkable.

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7) Melinda in Speak

Speak 7 Memorable Movie Characters Who Barely Say A Damn Thing

I’m going to go ahead and say that I find Kristen Stewart to be one of the best young actors in the business today and y’all are going to have to go ahead and deal. Because unless you’ve seen her work outside of Twilight, you’re missing a career that demonstrates some incredibly interesting choices and roles and work on independent art films and being victimized by the hype machine that makes you see everything through the prism of Twilight. I’ll save more thoughts I have on her for another time.

In Speak, Stewart plays Melinda, who shares some qualities with Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine, except her vow of silence comes from a significantly more tragic and serious instance involving a sexual assault. Instead of representing just the angst and dissatisfaction that defines adolescence for many people, Melinda’s decision to refrain from speaking represents an overall frustration with an inability to assert her own voice, and the lack of interest others show in hearing what she has to say.

It’s an expression of a specific rage against not being heard, a type of protest, but one that comes from an understandably angry place. It’s heavy material, but handled terrifically by a young K-Stew (the film was released in 2004, or the year 4 BT, that is, Before Twilight). She has to carry the mantle of this tradition of actors going dumb for roles and therefore expressing themselves physically. It calls attention to her skill with subtle body language. Which of course she gets no credit for. Because this skill was so ineptly handled in the movies she’s most famous for. Such is life.

Are there any soft-spoken or mute movie characters you’ve found memorable for moments of silence rather than catchphrases? Share your examples below.

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  • josh

    I can’t believe that was Kristen Stewart. I now wish twilight haters would see Speak.

    • Yuge

      It wouldn’t make Twilight less awful, though :U

    • WoWed

      her previous works don’t excuse her most recent ones. she doesn’t carry that level of credibility yet

    • neowiz73

      Kristen Stewart, if anything, is what makes it a bearable movie to watch for some of us. I don’t get the whole sparkly-day-walking vampire aspect.

  • Dionysus

    By the very definition of his name, I’m surprised you didn’t include Silent Bob

  • Comiccow

    Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite? That guy was awesome.

  • spdubois

    OK — how about the entire cast in “Quest for Fire”? (1981)

  • Tommyboy

    Has to be silent bob for me

  • Alex Lowe

    Scissorhands is still my favorite Depp role, I don’t know if he’ll ever beat that.

    Another couple that could be on the list: Kenny in Manic. his performance has stuck with me ever since I first saw it, and for the majority of the movie he refuses to talk.
    Ryan Gosling in Drive. May be a cliche pick, but that was the first one that came to mind when I saw the title of the article.

    Also, I’m a big Stewart fan as well. I even thought she was great in Adventureland and Snow White and the Huntsman. Now that Twilight is done, hopefully she can put those films far behind her.

  • cris1hian

    WALL E!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Harding/100000145858394 Mark Harding

    Luke Askew as the Hitchhiker in Easy Rider. Doesn’t say much at all, but a very significant character. Or Morgan Woodward as the Man With No Eyes in Cool Hand Luke. Another silent but important character.

  • Avenger

    What?? Where is T-1000 from Terminator 2??

  • Oniönhead

    Arnold Schwarzenegger – The Terminator.

  • tracy

    you totally forgot cuba gooding jr in Lightning jack with Paul Hogan.

  • Bowmac

    Ada in The Piano. Amazing performance.

  • Su ZQ

    Wes Bentley in American Beauty

  • Mwb

    Robert Duvall’s character in To Kill a Mockingbird. Stunning.

  • annon

    What the deaf man heard. was a great one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ferdinand.u.wang Ferdinand Uziel Wang

    Manosobu Ando as the killer Kiriyama in Battle Royale.

  • Morgan

    Kristen Stewart was surprisingly good in this movie, but for me, I find that her earlier movies are infinitely better than her current ones. I thought she was great in Panic Room with Jodi Foster, but her more recent films just seem to be the same character over and over again with a few changes here. I love it when actors can express various emotions just through their eyes or their body language, but from what I’ve seen of Stewart’s more recent films, she doesn’t use any of that really anymore and, again, her character’s all become the same and are quite bland.

    • Bea

      I remember reading that book and it’s very compelling. I don’t know if it’s the contents of the movie or her acting but really Speak was just great. And I agree about her acting with her seeming like the same character over and over again though I see it as starting little earlier in her career vs recently.

      Perhaps it’s certain directors that brings more of her skills out or requires more from her than giving us that blank and flat acting.

  • Her

    John Coffey- The Green Mile… If anyone likes The Shawshank Redemption or other prison dramas, they should watch it!

  • Madfatchickkilla

    Silent Bob?

    • onika

      hi

  • mikes

    o.k…whoever the guy was who played the zombie leader in Land of the Dead. He was brilliant.

  • E

    Where the [frick] is Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes

  • Niko Pötry

    Yen in Ocean’s Trilogy. “Where to fuck you been?”

  • Tom Holderbach

    One Eye from Valhalla Rising

  • lux

    ryan gosling in Drive.

  • DrNope

    Sloth (Goonies)

  • Caro

    Alan Arkin in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.

  • HopeFollows

    Silent Bob is one of my favorites. I haven’t watched his regular stuff, though. I’ve only found out about him when I watched Dogma a couple years ago. Been meaning to watch his stuff.

  • mrk

    jaws from the spy who loved me/moonraker

  • Mydknight

    But if you ever see Adventureland… If you haven’t clawed your eyes out and forced sharp object into your eardrums by the end of this movie… Yes! it’s that bad!

    • PizpotGargravarr

      88% of critics on RottenTomatoes would disagree with you, as would I.

  • Mykelle Moonblood

    R from warm bodies

  • Mykelle Moonblood

    I love Kristen too.

  • unstuck

    The Rinko Kikuchi character in Babel

  • Mike

    Darth Maul? One of the few good things to come out of the Star Wars prequels?

  • Jon Michael Riggs

    Boris Karloff in the 1931 Frankenstein

  • Suzy

    Gilbert in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”

  • MadManatee

    What about Boba Fett? I would say he has the most skewed fame to number of lines ratio. He said like 3 things.

  • bubba fett

    Boba Fett – “He’s no use to me dead”

  • Virgilitron

    Kurk douglass in soldiers doesn’t speak much!

  • Po

    Wilson the Volleyball from Cast away?!

  • lhawk68

    Cuba Gooding Jr in Lightning Jack. Not a great movie but he made it to be halfway decent.

  • BOBA

    HELLO SNAKE EYES AND BOBA FETT

  • HMS1013

    No Boo Radley? WTF?! Robert Duvall was perfection in that film

  • carash13

    Johnny Depp, again…….. Benny & June

    • thatonekid

      Benny & Joon*

  • frenzy

    MR BEAN :P

  • disqus_HJiKq6eaoI

    Finally someone else that sees Kristen Stewart for the amazing actress that she is.

  • Boone.

    Holly Hunter ‘s character in ” The Piano ”. An excellent movie in which Miss Hunter delivers an astonishing performance.

  • Joe

    Silent fricken bob

  • Hawkeyesdish

    Susan in “The Patriot”. That little girl packed so much emotion in to every non-dialogue she had, and when she finally broke down and spoke to her father, sobbing and telling him she’ll say anything as long as he doesn’t go (back to war)…. my mom cries every single time we watch it.

  • Matt King

    Ray Park as Darth Maul from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

    For a guy with 3 lines of dialogue (and the least in the entire Star Wars franchise of MAIN roles that HAS speaking dialogue) he had a TON of presence. He looked like a viable threat and conveyed his hate and anger through just his body language: silent, cold, but holding a burning fire within and a wicked superiority complex. And he only spoke 3 lines? Plus he got to pull a Toshiro Mifune whenever he burst into action: you knew he was going to pull his lightsaber in a second and when he did it was fast, furious, and frightening, but the rest of the time he was still and silent and yet FULL of presence that easily outweighed any other villain he was with in the room, INCLUDING the future Emperor, Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid.) Whatever ANYONE’s complaints about that film, you NEVER hear them complain about Darth Maul… Only that he died waaay too quickly (though they DID bring him back in Clone Wars and he was just as awesome there as well…)

  • Jon Hironimus

    You compare one character to Silent Bob but then make no mention of him on the list?? Or while I’m on the subject of Kevin Smith movies, how about God played by Alanis Morriset in Dogma?
    Also, though she was more mousy than silent, there’s Adrian in the first Rocky flick. Some others off the top of my head:
    Lobot -Empire Strikes Back
    The Creature -Young Frankenstein.
    Rocky -The Rocky Horror Picture Show
    Helen Keller -The Miracle Worker.
    Ada -The Piano.
    Jason -Friday The 13th.
    Tinkerbell -Disney’s Peter Pan.
    Lurch -Addams Family.
    Jaws -The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker

  • Juniper

    You forgot to mention The MC in The Piano…

  • Simone Wilson

    Ferb

  • leah hughes

    I saw the movie Speak, for one thing the book was so much better. Kristin Stewert is definately not a good actress, she isn’t the worst out there, but she is pretty awful. That is just my opinion though.

  • Charles

    Allison Reynolds – The breakfast Club
    Dot – The quiet