Have you ever pulled your headphones out of your backpack to discover they've gotten all tangled up, and you're not sure how they could get so twisted just sitting in there? At the end of Jamie Babbit's The Quiet, the director had turned me into the emotional equivalent of those headphones just by keeping me in my theatre seat for ninety minutes. Rather than be a mystery, it's a testament to all the talent involved.
The Quiet is the first feature film from writing duo Abdi Nazemian and
Micah Schraft, as well as Babbit's first dramatic effort. (She's best known for the TV series "Popular" and the satirical teen comedy But I'm a Cheerleader.) For an inaugural effort into the thriller genre, they couldn't have done a better job. The Quiet is one of those movies that is tense through and through. From the very opening, it puts its audience on edge, creating an aura of dread. You know something is going to go horribly wrong, you're just not sure when.
The plot of The Quiet hinges on the exposing of secrets. Every member of the cast has something to hide, and the degree to which those secrets are really hidden becomes the larger question. Who knows what, and why aren't they doing something about it?
The story opens when Dot (Camilla Belle from The Ballad of Jack and Rose) joins the Deer family. Deaf and mute, Dot recently lost her father in an auto accident, and her mother has been dead since she was seven. Paul (Martin Donovan, Saved) and Olivia (Edie Falco, The Sopranos) are Dot's godparents, and so caring for the young girl falls on them. Paul appears to already have his hands full. Olivia has a problem with pills and is out of it most of the time, and their teenage daughter, Nina (Elisha Cuthbert, The Girl Next Door, TV's "24"), is a cheerleading Lolita with an attitude problem. Nina is affronted by Dot's presence, as it's not cool suddenly being the sister of the high school freak. Social status is not all that's bothering Nina, however. The first secret to drop is a huge bombshell: Daddy makes regular visits to his little girl's bed every night, and it's not to tuck her in.
Dot becomes the crux for the exposure of everyone's secret shame. Because she can't hear them, they feel safe telling her everything. Paul admits his "sickness," and the cute boy at school, Connor (Shawn Ashmore, best known as Iceman in the X-Men films), details his secret fantasies about her. (Their relationship is kind of endearing. Connor feels everyone at school isn't ready to know the real him, and he sees a kindred spirit in Dot, someone else who knows what it's like to be alone.) Dot listens to everything without reaction. As we're told in her voiceover, her goal is to just disappear into the background, to go unnoticed. This kind of attention is not something she wants to encourage.
Only Nina has a secret that Dot can't ignore: she's planning to kill her father.
All of the characters in The Quiet are trying to reconcile a duality in their personality. Paul gives the appearance of being an upstanding father trying to raise his daughter right, but he's also a pedophile. Olivia knows more than she lets on, using medication to achieve a semblance of oblivion, a goal similar to Dot's. Nina admits to hating her father for what he does, but also liking it. She exploits his weakness and manipulates him to get what she wants. Even her plan to fix her problem has an unclear motivation. We aren't sure if she's really going to do it or if she's just messing with Dot. It's also not clear whether Dot will try to stop her or contrive reasons to stay out of Nina's way and let her do it.
There are more twists and turns along the way, but I'd rather keep mum about those and let you discover them on your own. Your initial viewing of The Quiet will work best the less you know. Jamie Babbit kept me guessing the entire time, creating a mood that feels almost otherworldly. The Deer home makes for an excellent set piece. Edie Falco's character is an interior decorator, and she has yet to finish the work on the house. This leaves many rooms wide open and empty, with plastic tarps hanging around like specters of what's not being said. This family is trapped in a barren landscape of their own design.
In addition to the picture's suspense, The Quiet also deals with intense emotional issues without ever straying into the prurient. All of the characters are complex enough to lend a real gravity to their plight, even when their actions are absolutely despicable. I found Elisha Cuthbert to be the biggest surprise. Falco, Donovan, and Belle have always been impressive acting talents, but Cuthbert has never been in anything I've had much desire to see. Also, her role on "24" has reached epic proportions in the joke department. By reputation alone, I didn't expect much. To her credit, she plays Nina with real insight, deconstructing her outward bitchiness to reveal its existence as a protective shield even as she's maintaining a sinister glee in being the bitch. Babbit smartly chooses not to glam her up. While Nina certainly means to be provocative in how she dresses and applies her make-up, she's several steps removed from your average MTV pop tart. Rather, she looks surprisingly like a normal girl.
The Quiet is a smart thriller by people who realize that the scariest things in life are what we can do to each other. In its portrait of a family that is tearing itself apart, the film explores the outer edges of the drastic behavior those things can drive us to. It never stops surprising, and never lets the viewer rest, and yet it never resorts to cheap shocks or schlocky titillation. Instead, it genuinely grips its audience with real anxieties. Make sure you have some antacids on hand for when it's over, because your stomach is going to need a little help unclenching.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.