Soft & Quiet (2022)
Directed & Written by Beth de Araújo
Starring Stefanie Estes, Olivia Luccardi, Dana Millican, Melissa Paulo, Eleanore Pienta, Cissy Ly, & Jon Beavers.
Drama / Horror / Thriller
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
Certain films, like Beth de Araújo’s Soft & Quiet, so expertly illustrate why horror doesn’t need the supernatural, nor the slasher, nor any other gimmick in order to be considered horror; a lot of times, horror can be of the everyday variety. Araújo likewise takes the audience on a ride that makes clear why horror also doesn’t need explicitly graphic violent content to scare or unsettle. Soft & Quiet is a timely piece of cinema about a group of white women in a small town who get together for a meeting to discuss their new social group. Except when a few of them leave to keep the conversation going over wine at home, they run into a woman from one of their pasts and the situation spirals out of control until it reaches a shocking conclusion.
Araújo uses Soft & Quiet as a vehicle to talk about white supremacy with brutal openness. Her film charts how white extremism is a quick and slippery slope by showing the audience how a group of white women go from talking about their racism privately amongst themselves to a night full of shocking racial violence that culminates in a nasty murder. The film steadily gets more uncomfortable, albeit with purpose, as Araújo ratchets up the tension with every new scene, and we see how racist language takes form in terrifying action. Araújo further makes the focus of her story a group of women rather than a group of men because, as one of them remarks, white women are the “best secret weapon” of white supremacy since they “tread quietly.” We even see how white women weaponise patriarchy against men to keep men aligned with the goals of white supremacy. All at once, Soft & Quiet tackles racism, as well as the role many white women play in upholding white supremacy, and how white women use toxic masculinity to help patriarchy operate to its fullest, best extent.
“Diversity, inclusion—it’s like they’re speaking in fucking code.”
The first half hour of the film navigates the soft, quiet beginnings of white supremacy: many times it starts off with casual, friendly talks in rooms like the top floor of the church in the film, or in a recreation centre somewhere, or in someone’s living room; it often ends with active, physical violence like Emily and the other women commit against Anne (Melissa Paulo) and her sister Lily (Cissy Ly). Everything about Emily and her racist friends is so casual: one of the women baked a Nazi pie as “a joke” and some of them laugh, wondering when people got too sensitive for jokes linked to the genocide of millions; we see LOVE TO HATE in German (LIEBE ZU HASSEN) on the back of Leslie’s jacket; after the meeting’s over, one woman gives the others a Nazi salute, then Emily, giggling, replies with her own.
One particularly interesting, lowkey moment early on is when Emily asks Leslie (Olivia Luccardi) about what kind of men the latter is attracted to: “Do you like the burly type, or the lanky type?” This throwaway moment actually points to Emily’s generally binary view of the world: burly v. lanky men, white v. non-white, men v. women. She lives in a world of strict division; a world in which there are only two types of men—nothing outside and nothing in between, either. This, coupled with Emily’s behaviour towards the janitor at her school previously, is an early indication, before the white supremacy is revealed a bit later, that Emily’s existence is ruled by strict roles dictated by body types, behaviour, and, most importantly, race.
Emily’s rigid life of binaries is further explored through the relationship with her husband, Craig (Jon Beavers). She weaponises toxic masculinity against Craig to bend him to her racist will. Heteronormativity is a foundation of white nationalism, and Emily uses it to make Craig go along with the women’s plan to terrorise Anne. She suggests people will call him “a little fairy” and “a pussy bitch,” warning that he doesn’t want to seem like “a fucking faggot” by going against their plan. We see here that Emily talks to her husband exactly how she talked to the little boy at school in the opening scene, which says a few things about white supremacists. First of all, it’s a disturbing indication of how white women play a big part in supporting white supremacy, raising clueless boys into racist men. Secondly, it’s just as much an indictment of white supremacist men who are little more than boys running around aimlessly seeking a mother figure to tell them what to do/how to think. But Craig isn’t just some innocent man being lured by his wife into a life of racism by being attacked with toxic masculinity, he serves as an example of how those who do nothing in the face of racism are as guilty as those they watch commit racist acts. Although Craig doesn’t play a part in the eventual serious violence against the two women of colour, he doesn’t stop his wife and her friends from doing anything, plus he actually helps to physically restrain Anne and her sister; he is just as involved. He’s the bystander who does nothing, who allows racial violence to occur, so he’s just as racist as his wife and her friends, and just as to blame for everything that happens later because he didn’t lift a finger to stop it.
It’s also not only Emily who lives a life of rigid binaries. During the meeting, Kim (Dana Millican) mentions: “It starts with the mamas.” Gender roles are essential to white nationalism, and women who follow the wife/mother role appropriately are necessary to the entire project of white supremacy. Kim’s comment is full of internalised misogyny and racism at once, blaming mothers of colour as a whole for how young “coloured kids” act. The women at the meeting even discuss the supposed evils of feminism as perceived by white supremacy, worrying about how feminists actually want to “make us masculine.” Most of all, they fret over “decay of the traditional family” that began in the 1960s, encompassing civil rights for Black people and other social movements (such as feminists and queer/trans people) all in one fell swoop.Araújo fills the screenplay with language that is all too common today in the media and in the streets, from the white women complaining about “multicultural warfare” or talking about how white men built the Western world, to the white women lamenting how Black Lives Matter exists since “All Lives Matter.” The language begins very coded and casual, quickly giving way to outright racism and white supremacy. One of the most important pieces of Soft & Quiet is that Emily works as a kindergarten teacher. From the opening scene—during which we witness Emily hurl microaggressive behaviour towards a woman of colour who’s a janitor at her school—we see how Emily’s casual, covert racism trickles out of her brain and into the world around her, whether it’s her husband or the young boy she waits with after school, both of whom she manipulates to take part in her racism. Out of Emily’s mild-mannered life as a secretive racist eventually bursts the violence hiding inside all racists, dying to get out.
At first, once the finale plays out and the credits roll, the film’s payoff doesn’t entirely feel worth the anxiety and terror of sitting through all the racism and racial violence that came before it. But after sitting with everything a moment or two it becomes clear that Araújo ended the film how she did for a clear reason. We’re left to hope that one woman of colour in a small town will get legal justice against a group of white women, or perhaps find her own justice somehow. We had to sit through racism and horrific racial/sexualised violence but, in the end, we don’t even get to see the victim get revenge. And this is how it is in real life for people of colour who experience such terrifying violence—they don’t always get justice, certainly not from the American justice system, and, many times, they have to sit through all the racism and violence that white people heap onto them, and nothing happens in the end except that they, hopefully survive, just like Anne. Soft & Quiet is a vicious lesson in the realities of American racism and one of the most affective, important films about white supremacy in the United States since American History X.
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