By Greg Carlson
Beth de Araújo’s stunning “Soft & Quiet” plays out in real time, moving swiftly from its carefully calculated opening section to pick up speed as it rockets from one deeply unsettling sequence to the next. It is as terrifying as any film of 2022, a gripping thriller exposing grotesque anger and the jaw-dropping gears of the persecution complex embraced by the far-right. The first-time feature filmmaker wrote the screenplay after being inspired by the May 2020 confrontation between bird-watcher Christian Cooper and dog-walker Amy Cooper in New York City’s Central Park. The racially-charged interaction, like the murder of George Floyd that occurred on the very same day, was partially captured on video and posted online.
De Araújo introduces elementary school teacher Emily (Stefanie Estes) crying over a pregnancy test in a bathroom stall after nearly everyone else in the building has gone home for the day. The moment is shrewd and deceptive; the director misleads viewers by setting up the conditions for sympathetic identification. We’re inclined to like this person, or at least feel some pity for her. But Emily’s distress is followed by a strange interaction in which blame for a custodian’s freshly mopped and potentially slippery floor is wrapped in racist intimations. Something is not right, even if we’re not quite sure where all this is all going.
The mystery deepens as Emily walks along a wooded path, encountering another woman who turns out to be headed to the same destination. They enter a church meeting room populated by several others. Small talk and pleasantries give way to the sinister agenda as a growing list of ideas is recorded on a white board. It’s the inaugural gathering of the Daughters of Aryan Unity. Like Jeremy Saulnier’s excellent “Green Room,” the depiction of neo-Nazi adherents as essentially common, everyday folks you might encounter at the liquor store or a punk rock show sends a chill down the spine. Pointed hoods and burning crosses are not necessary to inspire terror – these monsters are neighbors and co-workers.
The combination of real time chronology with the nauseating escalation toward violence makes “Soft & Quiet” as powerful as it is difficult to watch. Although the final version of the movie is not presented as one unbroken take, de Araújo rehearsed and choreographed with her ensemble as if they were performing a piece of live theatre. Four consecutive shooting days were completed. And while the majority of what we see comes from the last day, small bits and pieces from the second and third attempts were incorporated in the cut.
Once “Soft & Quiet” leads the audience past the point of no return during a tour de force sequence set at an otherwise peaceful lake cabin, de Araújo enters the dark and suffocating territory inhabited by the likes of Haneke’s “Funny Games,” Noé’s “Irréversible,” and Christian Tafdrup’s “Speak No Evil.” The latter, another 2022 release, matches the brutality of “Soft & Quiet” but I think de Araújo has made the superior film. Her movie is brimming with ideas while resolutely avoiding the assumption of moral high ground. There are no sermons, only actions.
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