Shut Up or Die
Movie Review – A Quiet Place
Directed by John Krasinski
Starring John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe
There is a sound, the classic song reminds us, to silence – that absence of noise that announces itself like a stifling voice amid the cacophony. In movies, silence can offer refuge from the violence of sound – a quiet basement hidden from an alien attack or a romantic moment in a silent room of portraits separate from a party of decadent Roman socialites. Silence can bring eerie substance to a quiet horror – the brides of a blood-sucking vampire rising from their coffins and gliding through their master’s dungeon accompanied only by the pops and hisses of old celluloid or the dead stillness of one starship colliding with another at warp speed in the soundless vacuum of space. Silence can give voice to subtext in a quiet exchange of glances and fill the dramatic pauses of music and dialogue. It can be meditative, or chilling, spiritual or sardonic. “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Run Silent, Run Deep. “Enjoy the Silence.” Silence is calm. Silence is peaceful. Silence, we’re told, is golden.
In John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, silence is not only golden, it’s the only way to avoid certain death. In the year 2020 (Get ready, folks), mysterious creatures have devoured most human beings on Earth. Unable to see, the monsters locate their prey quickly through their exceptional hearing. But one family, the Abbotts, has managed to survive. They speak in sign language, carefully plot their steps over creaky staircases, and walk barefoot over paths of sand strategically laid around their farm. They have learned to coexist with the creatures, but it’s an existence ruled by constant fear. While in the city, scavenging for supplies and medicine for their youngest child, the boy fancies a toy airplane with batteries. The parents (Krasinski and Emily Blunt) take away the toy, dreading the unwanted attention it may bring them. When the family‘s deaf daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), sympathetically returns the toy, sans batteries, the child secretly takes them and reassembles the airplane on the long walk home. In what seems almost like a trend these days of small children being brutally slaughtered at the beginning of movies, the expected tragedy occurs, leaving the family devastated and Regan tortured with guilt.
This idea, of blind monsters who hunt by sound, is not unique to this film (the recent Netflix reboot of Lost in Space features a similar idea in one of its episodes), but it’s never been explored so thoroughly or effectively. In A Quiet Place, the quiet is a character unto itself. Except for a single full-voice conversation, some whispered words, and a few miscellaneous screams, the film is essentially wordless. But it’s not completely silent. There are the sounds of nature – the wind through the trees, the squeaks of animals – normally pastoral sounds here twisted into uneasy reminders of the ever-present dangers that noise can bring. It’s a clever device for suspense but far more than a gimmick. The quiet allows for a deeper focus on the emotional family story that is the center of this film, tethering viewers to the characters in the most intimate of ways. There’s something exhilarating about sitting in a theater full of teenagers and young adults as they sit in utter silence in a nearly soundless theater, wholly absorbed by what’s on screen, for 90 minutes. It’s a testament to the engrossing nature of this movie, and the visual power of cinema.
The film offers little in the way of plotting, concentrating instead on the Abbott family dynamic. The screenplay, by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and Krasinski, focuses on Krasinski’s father figure character as leader and protector of his pregnant wife and children, and on his post-tragedy relationships with his two remaining children, the guilt-ridden Regan, and her fear-stricken younger brother, Marcus (Noah Jupe). These father/child moments provide some of the film’s most moving moments. The closest to a plot this film gets is a simple and standard horror movie device – a separation between family members and the struggle to reunite them. That’s enough because the struggle to keep the family together is driving force of the movie.
Surprisingly the film this most brings to mind is The Diary of Anne Frank, another movie about a family whose words and sounds can get them killed. The Abbotts like the Franks are trapped in a prison of silence amidst unspeakable horror and yet that very silence brings them closer. In A Quiet Place, the Abbotts’ struggle mirrors the struggle of all parents trying to protect their families from a world gone mad. The film also touches on now-common themes of female empowerment with Blunt’s beleaguered mom-to-be taking a more aggressive role as the story progresses.
But all themes aside, A Quiet Place is a horror film, and a damn scary one. The best horror movies tend to creep up on you slowly, milking the suspense before they spring their shocks on you. A Quiet Place is such a movie. It derives much of its power from its slow-burning fuse. But when the shocks do come, they’re terrifying. The animals’ attacks come swiftly and out of nowhere swooping up their prey with giant claws, leaving only bloody scraps behind. And Blunt giving bloody birth in a bathtub, wracked with pain from both labor and a horrible foot injury, while the blind monster lurks behind her, an echo of the final scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien, is one of the most indelibly horrifying moments in recent memory.
A supporting actor in numerous films (Kinsey, Jarhead, etc.), and most widely known as the mischievous Jim Halpert on The Office, Krasinski directs confidently in only his third feature film. He’s forced into visual storytelling by the nature of his story, and he does so with skill and invention, alternating between Hitchcock-style visual exposition and visual poetry. As the movie’s lead, he’s convincing as the family patriarch, a strong but “silent” type, who dutifully protects his clan, though he does tend to overemote when he’s limited to physical acting. Blunt and Simmonds have the most impact. Blunt, Krasinski’s spouse in real-life as well as this movie, skips through a plethora of emotions with authentic ease. As the hearing-impaired daughter, Regan, 15-year-old Millicent Simmonds commands attention. Already an accomplished actress, Simmonds extraordinary face is a cinematic wonder. If it isn’t immediately attractive in standard child-actor way, it’s haunting and powerful, oddly perched between childhood and adulthood, innocence and wisdom. The the corners of her mouth turned down in grief, she draws you into her world with clarity and complete empathy. Hers is the tortured soul that anchors this story.
Krasinski’s film is not without the requisite horror movie tropes. The monster itself, as is usually the case these days, disappoints. Krasinski wisely keeps it hidden behind quick edits for most of the movie, but when the full revelation takes place, all we get is another variation of the Cloverfield monster with face flaps ala Stranger Things and the first Star Trek reboot. There is apparently a common belief among horror filmmakers that the audience will be angry if you don’t eventually reveal the monster. This is questionable logic. In a day when CGI technology has allowed for the creation of an endless array of fantastic creatures, there’s very little shock value left in fully unveiling your monster. What the audience wants most is to be scared out of their drawers and not revealing the creature in full light creates mystery and uncertainty, far more frightening things than a drooling flap-face monster with big ears.
And as is always the case with horror films, there are things that don’t add up. You’d think a creature with ears the size of basketballs would hear a heavily breathing woman in labor a few feet away. And there’s little explanation as to the creatures’ origins. Are they from outer space? A science experiment gone wrong? A climate change mutation? Apparently enough of them appear on the earth suddenly enough to wipe out entire populations before the monster’s simple vulnerability is discovered, War of the Worlds Style at the end of the film, an illogical pill that’s hard to swallow given that the elimination of humans takes three months. But none of this really matters. A Quiet Place uses it horror-story McGuffin to explore themes of family and the metaphors of silence. It works because it takes the time to develop a compelling human story with fully realized characters. It scares because we care. That is finally what makes this movie mesmerizing and scary as hell.