|Director: Beth de Araújo |
|Screenplay: Beth de Araújo|
|Stars: Stefanie Estes (Emily), Olivia Luccardi (Leslie), Eleanore Pienta (Marjorie), Dana Millican (Kim), Melissa Paulo (Anne), Jon Beavers (Craig), Cissy Ly (Lily), Nina E. Jordan (Nora), Rebekah Wiggins (Alice), Jayden Leavitt (Brian), Jovita Molina (Maria), Shannon Mahoney (Jessica)|
|MPAA Rating: R|
|Year of Release: 2022|
Note: As it is difficult to discuss Soft & Quiet without giving away some major plot points that the filmmaker clearly wanted to remain ambiguous, please tread carefully in reading this review if you have not seen the film.
Beth de Araújo’s feature debut Soft & Quiet starts with intrigue, quickly ramps up into an unsettling drama about racism, then veers into horrific thriller territory. And, for most of the film, it works quite powerfully, drawing us into a world that is ruptured when the violence of outrage, political anger, racial prejudice, and misplaced entitlement explodes from beneath the manners and mores that keep them hidden. The Guardian called 2020 “The Year of the Karen.” And now de Araújo has made Night of the Karens.
It all starts innocently enough. We are introduced to Emily (Stefanie Estes), a thirtysomething kindergarten teacher at a well-maintained elementary school in a pretty, forested neighborhood in Wyoming. She is kind to a young boy whose mom is late picking him up, and she offers to share with him the first pages of a children’s book she is writing and lets him take a peek at a pie she has baked for a gathering of friends after school. But, even within these opening moments, there are hints that something isn’t right. We actually first see Emily in the restroom taking a pregnancy test and crying hysterically over the result (which we don’t see), and then she takes a peculiarly intense interest in the Latinx janitor, who she sends the boy to chastise for mopping the floor before he walked on it, which might have caused him to slip and fall (or so she says).
Emily crosses the street and walks down a path to an inviting church nestled among the trees, meeting along the way Leslie (Olivia Luccardi), a young woman who is going to the same gathering as she. They walk together, chatting amicably about men and dating (Emily is married, and she offers to set Leslie up with one of her husband’s friends). They enter the church and head upstairs, where they find a group of women meeting in one of the sunny rooms, talking around a table adorned with cupcakes and coffee. The camera follows the foil-wrapped pie Emily has been carrying as she sets it on the table and the removes the covering, revealing that a swastika has been carved into the pie crust, oozing red cherry juice like blood. There are a few gasps and some laughter and we hear Emily off-screen chiding, “What? Can no one take a joke anymore?”
But, as it turns out, the swastika is no joke, but rather a potent symbol of these seemingly polite, affable women’s deep-seated prejudices and anger. While they may look like they’re holding a baby shower or a Sunday School meeting, they are actually inaugurating a group tentatively called Daughters for Aryan Unity, and they spend their time airing their racial grievances and brainstorming ideas for how their group can combat what they see as the decay of Western culture in the face of multiculturalism and immigration, which range from publishing a newsletter, to starting their own school. We hear from Marjorie (Eleanore Pienta), who is aggrieved that a “brown” coworker got the promotion she thinks she deserved. We hear from Kim (Dana Millican), a minivan-driving soccer mom, who is convinced that “Jew bankers” are the cause of her financial problems. And so on.
When they are asked to leave the church by the clearly disturbed pastor who overheard their discussion, they decide to go to Emily’s house to continue meeting over wine. They stop off at the small grocery store that Kim and her husband own, which is where they cross paths with Anne (Melissa Paulo) and Lily (Cissy Ly), two Asian-American sisters who also want to buy wine. Conflict ensues and insults are traded, and after the sisters leave, Leslie can’t let it go and convinces the other women, along with Emily’s reluctant husband, Craig (Jon Beavers), to drive to Anne and Lily’s house and do ... something ... in retaliation. Which is exactly what they do, but then Anne and Lily come home and catch them, and that is when the violence of words and taunts, as they often do, morphs into physical violence, trauma, and death.
And at this point, Soft & Quiet—the title of which alludes to Emily’s assertion that the women should remain soft and quiet to better spread their ideology—is a gripping, menacing, increasingly horrifying thriller. Granted, it grabs at some fairly low-hanging fruit by making its monsters a bunch of entitled white women whose grievances are rooted almost entirely in a fabricated sense of persecution, but writer/director Beth de Araújo builds the momentum so well and the performances by Estes, Luccardi, Pienta, and Millican are so insidiously effective that it works despite its obviousness. These are truly vile people who are both monstrous and pathetic; but, as Hitchcock well knew, we still feel the pangs of suspense and tension as we watch them dig themselves deeper and deeper into their own morass. The film’s fundamental problem at this point is that it doesn’t really have anywhere to go beyond following the tortured logic of their predicament as they try to cover up their acts, clean the crime scene, and dump the evidence in a lake. It is around this point that Soft & Quiet starts to feel predictable and repetitive, as the inherent tension of the situation slowly dissipates, rather than intensifies.
And this leads to the film’s second problem, which is de Araújo’s decision to shoot the film in real time in what appears to be a single, unbroken take. Because digital technology—including digital cameras, massive hard drives that can store hours of footage, and digital effects that seamlessly stitch together individual shots—has made such “one-shot” films infinitely easier to create, we have seen them become more and more common in recent years, from the horror film Silent House (2011), to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman (2014), to Sam Mendes’s war drama 1917 (2019). And, as with most of those films going back to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), the one-shot approach feels gimmicky and unnecessary (it also mires us in a morass of darkness in its final scenes, making the action unnecessarily unintelligible). It pays some dividends in Soft & Quiet, especially in terms of the “real time” component, which often intensifies the tension of both the violence and the moments in-between, but it all too often draws undue attention to itself as a technique, letting some of the air out of moments that should otherwise be utterly gripping.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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