In the case of the directorial debut by Beth de Araújo, the title might fool you. Delivering a harder gut-punch than Rocky Balboa’s, Soft & Quiet (2022) excels in masterful precision in telling a story of racism-fueled terror.
One thing that’s easy to miss in Soft & Quiet (2022) is the meaning of the opening scene, even despite the pedantically designed plot that follows breadcrumbs leading to absolute mayhem. Emily (phenomenal Stefanie Estes), a tall attractive blonde teacher in her mid-30s, encourages her pupil to chastise a black cleaning lady for leaving the floor wet. Earlier, Emily experiences a minute-scale breakdown, and the same person happens to be around when the protagonist angrily leaves the bathroom. Deliberately, Emily draws an innocent kid and a hard-working woman into a web of lies, all out of spite.
That moment speaks volumes when Beth de Araújo concludes the nightmare that Soft & Quiet (2022). After all that we witness, the slightest notion of such rotten people having the power to shape young minds and poison them with hatred makes guts twist.
Although Beth de Araújo indicates right away what the film aims for, Soft & Quiet (2022) cunningly and patiently prepares for its major strike. Going straight from work, Emily meets with a group of like-minded women, who some would perhaps pigeonhole as soccer moms. As if a testimony to their pure and genuinely good intentions, the congregation meets in a sacristy. However, the meeting’s actually a secret convention of a rural white-supremacy group called The Daughters of Aryan Unity.
Once again, the director builds up the momentum. While the room fills with laughter, the chatter begins to disturbingly steer towards those immigrant neighbors who came uninvited, a notion that’s welcomed with nodding heads and enthusiastic wine sipping. Ideas such as shaping a white-only school get thrown around, as well as racial segregation that should be the right of true-blood Americans. Among the other signs indicating where the brainstorm’s going is a swastika made up of deliciously looking fruit filling of the pie that Emily brought with her.
Given the blood-boiling topic, might it be rather risky to let the Daughters speak their minds so freely in the first half of Soft & Quiet (2022). Yet that’s where the true grit of Beth de Araújo basks in its own glory. To shy away from letting the monsters gain their ugly shape in broad daylight would jeopardize the validity of Soft & Quiet (2022). On the contrary, building the foundation of their establishes a pivotal contrast to the proceedings we observe later on. Once the ladies are kicked out of the church, the party goes on, switching from Jesus’ home to Kim’s local shop (Dana Milican). A shop, where the second half of Soft & Quiet (2022) inadvertently begets.
As explained by the director herself, the film’s supposed to play out as a live stream of a hate crime unfolding in real-time. Let it be emphasized that de Araújo puts all her energy and skills into crafting a horror as palpable, uncomfortable, and gruesome as possible. Observing wrong ideas gain muscle, tissue and actual deeds following them is one thing, but DP Greta Zozula fastens our seatbelts in a non-cut master shot that spans over the course of the whole film. Therefore, the audience is the culpable, powerless crowd that is left to ponder as to why people are such grim creatures. We watch the terror, waiting for the torment to end.
Needless to say, Soft & Quiet (2022) abounds in images designed to make one’s heart race faster. At the same time, Beth de Araújo avoids gore and indulging in cheap horror thrills that’d likely limit the crude, visceral nature of the film. The terror-inducing factor doesn’t reside in the way the camera catches glimpses of the torture, the growing tension, the sobbing of two women who went to the wrong store at the wrong hour. The director unearths the most frightening moments in the way the characters morph into ruthless assailants whose agenda distills on the go, as they act. Living in the moment – the way this psycho band does – gains a whole new, deranged meaning.
One remarkable example of such a terrifying transformation is Leslie (Olivia Luccardi), an ex-con whose silent spectator vibe from the first half of the movie never heralds the monster we’ll see emerging. While the whole cast puts in stellar performances, Luccardi in particular flexes her muscles as a loathsome lunatic whose determination and madness crystallize all the fears of how one spark razes the entire forest to the ground. The power shift and constant grinding on the line Leslie-Emily also add a lot to the film’s nauseating pace, since it reveals the chaos that reigns in the group.
Emily’s no less of a devil’s tool, as profoundly seen in the way she interacts with her husband, the only sane man whose attempts at stopping the avalanche from happening are nothing more than dire. A manipulative serpent that she is, Emily has the magnitude of a sleazy leader who carries the torch until a bigger fanatic steps in. Stefanie Estes also sells the internal stress that accumulates in her character, the dismay of which roots we never truly know.
Those hard-skinned enough to withstand the unbearable tension of Soft & Quiet (2022) will be left with a lot to process. Perhaps that’s the goal of Beth de Araújo too. To hold a mirror and see the callousness of the society – and not only the American one to be precise. Borderline nationalism grows in Europe too, and gains in strength as opposed to the liberal world of equality. And the director says loud and clear that denial of such things happening, committed by people we wouldn’t suspect, is simply allowing them to happen.
Although the topic isn’t particularly innovative – many films tried to capture that process of forming a dangerous mind in the past – Soft & Quiet (2022) works because of its shock value. Take Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), or Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011). Like Travis Bickle’s slow, progressive alienation and mental degradation, or other numerous examples of missions to cleanse the world of certain kinds of people, Soft & Quiet (2022) peeks at the need to nip them in the bud. As opposed to the vast majority though, this is a film that wants to appall, sicken and perturb. For this reason, the closest kin to this film remains Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) and The Strangers (2008) by Bryan Bertino, two stories of how evil appears with no understandable agenda. Despite the fact that Beth de Araújo lets the Daughters of Aryan Unity lay their wisdom in front of us, the maddening outburst of violence that follows has no roots, no deeply hidden traumas.
But while the subliminal message recalls Haneke, Bertino, or Gaspar Noe, there’s no cinematic poetry in Soft & Quiet (2022). In that sense, it’s also closer to Son of Saul (2015) or Quo Vadis, Aida (2020) where the audience’s supine, subject to the atrocities that cannot be stopped. The only difference is that De Araújo’s story didn’t happen – yet.
At the end of the day, it’s crucial to know that Soft & Quiet (2022) isn’t a popcorn horror; but a Midnight Madness feature for a film festival. De Araújo created a traumatizing film, one that points in directions we’d prefer to avoid looking at. I won’t say it’s a much-needed spectacle for everyone to see, because horrors about racism do get way more subtle – like Get Out (2017). But those viewers who like to get their heads hit with a cinematic hammer – this is an absolute must-watch.
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