Quiet, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Quiet is a psychological thriller from director Jamie Babbit (But I'm a Cheerleader) that takes viewers to darker places than those to which one is typically transported in movies of this sort. The subject matter includes four kinds of abuse: physical, emotional, sexual, and substance. All of the main characters have secrets and/or engage in manipulation, and there's a lot going on in the unpredictable currents beneath the surface. The production is not without weaknesses - there are times when the proceedings become too lurid and the denouement feels unnecessarily protracted - but overall this is a compelling and sometimes disturbing motion picture.

Dot (Camilla Bell) is a deaf, mute teenager who is living with her godparents after the death of her father. Dot's new "sister," Nina (Elisha Cuthbert), is unhappy to have one of the school's "rejects" living in her house, and the presence of the newcomer further complicates an already dysfunctional situation. Nina's mother, Olivia (Edie Falco), is addicted to prescription drugs and often seems unaware of what's going on around her, and Nina's father, Paul (Martin Donovan), habitually visits his daughter after everyone else in the house has gone to bed. Meanwhile, Dot is hiding something - she's not really deaf or mute; she's just pretending. Then, one night, she spies Nina and Paul together.

One strength of The Quiet is that it does not deal exploitatively with the incest/sexual abuse issue in its quest to generate tension. This is a grim subject, and Babbit gives it its due. Nina is obviously confused and damaged. She lashes out for no reason at Dot, is dismissive of her mother, and has a love/hate relationship with her father. She fantasizes about murdering him, but cannot summon the courage. She craves simple affection - after verbally abusing Dot for half of the film, she curls up next to her one night for comfort after rejecting one of her father's advances. Paul suffers from self-disgust. He calls himself "sick" and wants to stop sleeping with his daughter, but he lacks the strength to block the compulsion. Olivia shields herself from reality with drugs, but she is complicit in what's happening with her husband and daughter. Many nights when he leaves her bed, she is not asleep.

The most interesting character is Dot, and the movie is presented from her point-of-view. Her running internal monologue is unnecessary and distracting but, other than that, the character is presented effectively. Initially, we are unsure whether or not Dot is deaf. There are clues in the way she reacts to the comments of others that indicate she's not what she seems to be. Once we have figured out her secret (this comes fairly early in the film, so it's not really a spoiler), the story takes its time showing how she exploits this advantage. Of course, it's not certain how others will react if they learn she can hear things she was not meant to. It is dishonest and some people, including her possible boyfriend (Shawn Ashmore), might view it as a betrayal. Nina, on the other hand, uses her knowledge of Dot's secret to manipulate the other girl.

The tone is cool and emphasizes isolation in accordance with Dot's perspective of her place in the world. For a while, she remains aloof, but circumstances eventually force her to make a choice. Things start collapsing like a house of cards when one trigger sets in motion a series of unstoppable events.

The high school scenes are refreshingly free of the usual dumb, scripted interaction we have come to expect from these situations. The cafeteria and classrooms are not populated by a group of bland stereotypes. These are real people and when they don't like someone, they express it in a snide, offhand manner, not by going over-the-top. This is how I remember high school - sometimes awkward, sometimes cruel and unforgiving.

Both of the leads give strong performances. As Nina, Elisha Cuthbert captures all of the emotional shifts her character must endure, forcing the viewer to reassess an individual who is initially unlikable. This stands as an argument that Cuthbert was underused in 24. Sure, she's attractive, but she also has ability that the TV show never showcased. Camilla Bell, who was excellent in The Ballad of Jack and Rose and wasted in When a Stranger Calls, does the majority of her work with body language and facial expressions. Edie Falco and Martin Donovan give balanced supporting performances, lending humanity to roles that could have been one-dimensional.

The Quiet is going to disturb some viewers, and this is uncertain territory for any thriller to traverse. Babbit, however, is careful in the way she approaches the material, and the rhythms of the movie are often more what one would expect from a straight drama. Nevertheless, there is an underlying current of suspense and, even though the story's trajectory makes sense in hindsight, it is not predictable. 20 minutes before the conclusion, I wasn't sure where things were going. For those who don't mind thrillers with darker, serious underpinnings, The Quiet is worth a trip to a theater.

Quiet, The (United States, 2005)

Director: Jamie Babbit
Cast: Elisha Cuthbert, Camilla Bell, Edie Falco, Martin Donovan, Shawn Ashmore, Katy Mixon
Screenplay: Abdi Nazemian & Micah Schraft
Cinematography: M. David Mullen
Music: Jeff Rona
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2006-08-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1