By Ray Pride
A middling thriller with terrific atmosphere and sparks of genuine perversity, “The Quiet,” director Jamie Babbitt’s second feature (after “But I’m A Cheerleader”) is most notable for its disorienting high-definition video stylization and its status as a movie largely crewed by University of Texas students.
Elisha Cuthbert plays Nina Deer, a popular cheerleader whose social status is endangered when her suburban parents (Martin Donovan and Edie Falco) adopt their recently orphaned mute goddaughter Dot (Camilla Belle, “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”). Shawn Ashmore’s also on hand as Connor, a confused yet popular jock. The dark doings in Abdi Nezemian and Micah Shraft’s script are matched by quietly fussy performances from Falco and Donovan, as well as an understated but suffocating atmosphere in design and lighting.
Plus, it was largely produced by interns. “The University of Texas at Austin has the highest endowment besides Harvard in the country,” Babbitt explains. “Their big problem with their film school is that they can’t compete with NYU and USC because students would rather work on films or get those contacts in LA. So this is their way of trying to recruit students to come to Austin: ‘Oh you can work on independent films because you get to work on a movie that comes out in theaters.'”
Babbitt’s directed a lot of episodic television, including “The Gilmore Girls,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Alias.” With “The Quiet,” there’s a lot of unusual color balances and the use of smoke and reflections that are easier to achieve in high-definition video. “There is this whole idea that Dot is a mirror for everyone in the movie. She’s the blank slate. Connor is using her as the bounce-board for what he thinks she is; Nina is using her for what she needs. Dot is the mirror that everyone is looking into. So it seemed appropriate to have a lot of reflections and to systematically bring that to life. The great thing about widescreen is that it allowed us more opportunities in the frame to have reflections. If there’s a mirror or some kind of glass surface up at the very top of the frame, we could include something very interesting there. That shot where Dot comes into Edie Falco and Martin Donovan’s room and says, ‘I want to go see the movie’ and you see Martin reflected in the glass—if we hadn’t gone widescreen, that would have been hard to frame. I think it’s also a reaction against shooting TV, where you have that really tall frame with no wideness so it’s almost hard to make shots look pretty. The thing about widescreen, it’s just so much easier to frame something interestingly.”
Dot takes stock in mirrors often. “We often needed to create a lot of quiet moments in the movie, obviously, because we had a lot of voiceover. As far as the color palette goes, I just like the idea that the girls are underwater, that the whole family is kind of stuck in this, that they can’t breathe. Gray, black. Suffocating.”
If someone said this was “Carrie” meets “River’s Edge,” would that set your teeth on edge? “That would be great. I love both those movies. ‘Heavenly Creatures,’ [Abel Ferrara’s] ‘Ms. 45.’ So bizarre. I haven’t seen that many [of his films]. But I have it, I actually own it! It’s about a deaf-mute nun who gets raped twice in the movie and seeks revenge. It’s fun. She goes to a costume party; she dresses as a nun and, like, kills everybody. There was some inspiration in [a] murder scene for that, the slo-mo.”
The script’s filled more with stylized power dynamics than psychological plausibility. How does a director measure how to be melodramatic and not tip over into camp? “It’s just actors, it’s really all about me keeping the actors coming from a real place. It was really important to me because there’s a crime and blood—all the kind of tent poles for a thriller—that there also be unexpected ways of playing scenes. Martin’s softer, not, like, an asshole.” That makes it okay for you to hate him then? “He’s needy. Hurt and wounded and needy. One of things I really liked about the script is that the moment that Nina finds out Dot has a secret, rather than saying, ‘oh, we both have secrets and now we’re friends,’ the next scene is the scene where she’s the meanest to her in the entire movie, where she scares her, more than anything. I think there are a lot of reversals in the movie, whether it’s the actors playing it that way or the script doing weird things.”
“The Quiet” opens Friday.