A Quiet Place (2018)
Dir. John Krasinski; John Krasinki, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds
[3 out of 4 stars]
We seem to be living in the midst of a horror renaissance. In the past few years, we have been graced with critical and audience darlings such as The Conjuring (2013) and The Babadook (2014), and in just the past year the likes of Get Out (2017) and It (2017) have taken pop culture by storm. Horror has always served as wonderful thermometer for Americans cultural anxieties. Since these movies have started to appear in earnest, the American public has had much to be anxious about, from heightened awareness of terrorist activity, to a tumultuous election cycle. It is the tension from these fears and frustrations that no doubt inspire such horror on the big screen. Many of them feature truly visionary filmmaking, which push the edges of both the horror genre and filmmaking writ large. Enter A Quiet Place (2018).
Directed by, written by, and starring John Krasinski, A Quiet Place takes place in a post-apocalyptic world circa 2020. Few details are given about the circumstances which have pushed the world into disarray, but the vague facts we can pin down are these: a meteor of some sort crash landed, and from the meteor a breed of monster has fanned out to hunt anything that lives. The brilliant caveat of these beasts is that they are completely blind, relying entirely on an elevated sense of sound to hunt. Lee (Krasinski), Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and their children live in the midst of this insanity, carving out a self-reliant existence on a meandering family farm in a rural town. Within minutes of the film’s opening, their youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward), meets a ruthless end when he presses a button on the space shuttle he is playing with, which sets off a series of buzzes and beeps. The noise alerts a nearby creature who snaps him up before Lee can save him. From this point, we jump about a year into the future where the husband, wife, and the two remaining children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), grapple with the grief of losing a family member, while just trying to survive.
The idea of a family surviving in a post-apocalyptic world is not a revolutionary narrative by any means, but how the film toys with the presence of sound sets it apart. Because these creatures hunt using sound, it constrains the amount of noise that any of the characters can make, and Krasinski and the sound mixers lean on this heavily. For instance, the family pours sand along the walkways they use around the house and walk only in bare feet to avoid making noise. Within the old farmhouse, there are patches of gray paint on the safe spots on the floor, spots one assumes have come from an enormous amount of trial and error, stepping on all the squeaky floorboards. Submerged under the barn is the space that the family has converted into a home, insulated with layers of paper and a mattress thrown over the entrance to mediate any accidental sound that comes from within. The result is that any time one of them makes a noise, such as when Marcus knocks over a lamp in the midst of a game of Monopoly, it feels amplified beyond compare. We are brought so intently into this near-silent world that the terrified reactions which accompany any accidental sound seem completely believable, and it seemed to me that every person in the theater was holding their breathe just as intently as the characters, wondering if that sound would be their last.
As the character most tightly connected to silence, Simmonds emerges as the magnetic center of the film. Simmonds is actually deaf, something that carries over into her performance as Regan. Most of the communication between the family members is done through sign language, which is subtitled for the viewer, and Regan’s deafness makes the signing seem an integral part of the family as opposed to a quick fix to help with communication. The entire cast possess wonderfully expressive features, and exercises a precise control of their bodies to emulate the emotions they are feeling in such an expressive way that I never found myself wishing they would speak more, much in the same way as Sally Hawkins’ performance in The Shape of Water (2017). But it is Simmonds who I found myself drawn to again and again. It is her expression when Beau is killed, frozen in preemptive grief and terror, that resonated throughout the film. Furthermore, it is her guilt over having given Beau the toy that lead to his death, and the perceived blame from her father, that motivates her throughout the movie. She desperately wants to prove herself to Lee, and her brother wants nothing more than to stay away from the outside world, while their mother quietly keeps the peace amongst them all. At one point, Lee forces Marcus to go fishing with him even though the boy is terrified, while Regan begs to be taken along. Within this exchange we see the tension surrounding the gendered expectations of the children, and the spectre of residual resentment on Lee’s part from Regan’s part in Beau’s death. All the while, Evelyn stands by to pick up the pieces when the fight has ended. It is the portrait of a family that could be painted onto any scenario, examining the fault lines that run between us all. Yet, here they also happen to live in a world that wants to make communicating all the more complicated.
When we are experiencing the world aligned with her, the sound is completely turned off. We are brought into her personal interactions with the world as the movie imitates the silence which makes up her life. At times, it is incredibly poignant, such as when she visits Beau’s grave, and we are resultantly entirely focused on the pictures and mementos she is seeing, and other times, it is terrifying, as we can see a creeping creature that she cannot hear. We are terrified for a threat she is completely unaware of, and that we know she will never hear coming. In other films there is always the chance something could alert a character to the threat, but here we can only hold our breath and hope. Krasinski insisted on casting a deaf actress in the role of his daughter to make sure that the true experience of being deaf was presented with nuance and care. His casting alongside the decision to lean into the sound design around her, by helping the viewer experience the world just as she does, is the most inspired choice of the movie.
While Krasinski as a director falls prey to an arsenal of familiar jump scares, and while the mother and father concerned for the safety of their children is a compelling if tired narrative, the assemblage of set pieces and path towards family reconciliation that he puts together in the back half of the film make up for any less than original stretches in the first half. It is the film’s sensitivity to sound design which results in a family besieged by silence that make the second half of the film some of the most effective building of tension I’ve experienced in a movie. I will not elaborate on the final forty-five minutes because one of the true joys of watching this film is being scared out of your wits as you watch the characters desperately try to stay alive. I would hate to knock any of the air out of some truly innovative direction which left myself and the friends I was seeing the movie with squeezing all the feeling out of each others’ hands. It is a taught and lean thriller with nothing extra to bog it down, and while it may not taut the allegorical heft of Get Out or The Babadook, it is a profoundly effective bit of horror filmmaking.