Talking Without Speaking, Hearing Without Listening
The Quiet / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | August 28, 2006 | Comments ()
The ads for The Quiet are all about Elisha Cuthbert, and Elisha Cuthbert is all about sex. Her career, her presence, her entire reason for being are all wrapped up in maintaining an erotic stranglehold on the fragile psyche of young American males: She first gained notoriety as a cheery floozy in Love Actually, then turned around and endeared herself to frats across the country with her underwear-themed turn in Old School. And who could forget her “work” on “24”? And then, oh goodness, the self-destructive wish-fulfillment that is The Girl Next Door. Even her role in the moronic House of Wax required her to do nothing but jiggle and run in a wife-beater while getting just the right amount of dirty. And herein lies the problem: She’s become so inherently sexualized that it’s impossible to take her seriously as anything other than a slutty caricature of real life. Even in the best of circumstances, Cuthbert would have to do a fantastic bit of acting to overcome the fact that even she doesn’t take herself seriously. And trust me when I tell you: The Quiet is far from the best of circumstances. Far. Pilgrimage to Mecca on foot far. Director Jamie Babbit’s film aspires to be a moody thriller dealing in dangerous subjects, but it’s really just a slice of blissfully unselfconscious tripe, the kind of tawdry tale that should be coming on Oxygen late at night and featuring Nancy McKeon or Mackenzie Phillips as the pill-popping mom. It has nothing going for it, and everything against it.
From the outset, the film aims for the eerie mood of a sophisticated thriller, but it’s hampered by everything from sets that hit the trifecta of ugliness, cheapness, and clumsy metaphor; to laughable dialogue, including some of the worst exposition you’ll ever hear; to story points that feel random and completely unconnected to any kind of overarching plot; to dreadful acting by a group of not-very-talented performers; to the gradual slide from drama into unintentional comedy.
The film begins with Dot (Camilla Belle) wandering the halls of her high school. She’s deaf and mute, though that doesn’t stop her from narrating the film. Recently orphaned, Dot now lives with the family of classmate Nina (Cuthbert), a cheerleader who hates Dot with the blind passion reserved for teens who hate other teens in movies. Dot bears silent witness to Nina’s tortured home life, which includes a mother (Edie Falco) who’s forever remodeling the house and cruising on prescription meds and a father (Martin Donovan) who has more than a passing interest in his daughter. This is the house’s big secret: the incestuous physical relationship between Nina and her dad. Nina confesses this to Dot, since Dot is deaf and she just needs to get it off her chest. Nina also admits that she sometimes enjoys the sex, and that she hates her father and plans to kill him.
That’s the running gag: Confess your sins and desires to the deaf girl. Nina’s concerns are legitimate, but it isn’t until Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft’s screenplay introduces soccer stud Connor (Shawn Ashmore) that things get really absurd. Connor takes a shine to Dot and takes her out for a milkshake — aww — and isn’t with her five minutes before he starts telling her he’s wondered what she looks like naked and how these thoughts have driven him to new realms of self-abuse. I felt bad at the few chuckles I couldn’t hold back, since nobody wants to be the jerk ruining the ambience in the theater, but I soon realized that the sparse crowd was laughing right along with me. It wasn’t that Ashmore delivers his heartfelt confession of flagellation with such gravitas, though that definitely helped; it was the insanity of the situation. It’s as if these horrible kids have been just waiting for a deaf student to show up so they can pour out their twisted hearts. What’s worse, Babbit shows no interest or ability in maintaining the tension that would (you’d think) necessarily arise from one character knowing or at least suspecting that everyone else was up to something, or from the audience knowing the same info. For a sexed-up thriller, The Quiet is shockingly dull, plodding along through a series of scenes that are tenuously connected at best. There’s no story here, just a group of poorly formed ideas. Perhaps the weirdest of these is a scene of Dot mourning her dead father by crying over his ashes before running her fingers through them and then — wait for it — licking her fingers. I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.
Soon enough, Dot finds herself drawn into Nina’s downward spiral of emotional torment at the hands of her abusive father and absent-minded mother. Nina’s mom often passes out in the living room, which is still a wreck from the renovation process. It’s a clunky representation of the mental anguish hiding behind every door in suburbia, and the space exists in a constant murk of dust motes and dim light, even during the day. Nina’s father grows increasingly brave in his attempts to grab his daughter’s butt, so Nina concocts a plan to get some money and run away. But with a life like hers, it’s clear things won’t work out pleasantly.
The Quiet is a failure for many reasons, notably in that it managed to take an unsettling subject and make it boring. Instead of a web of secrets being slowly wrapped around the central characters, Dot and Nina exist in a world without consequences. The story has a twist, though one that the average viewer will figure out within the first few moments, and it’s only through a supreme act of will I’m not spilling the secret here. Throughout it all, Cuthbert pouts those pillowy lips and does what she can with the story, but it’s nowhere near enough. She’s supposed to be the victim, but her onscreen persona is so sexualized that there’s no shock value in the story: Yes, Nina’s tale is a dark one, but Cuthbert was bound to get here eventually. It was only a matter of time.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.