Night Shyamalan is back, sans any gimmicky plot twists, and his name is John Krasinski. Famous for playing affable Jim Halpert on The Office, Krasinski might not seem like a likely choice to direct a horror film, but with A Quiet Place he proves that he’s well-suited for the job. It’s only April, but I suspect that his directorial turn will be making a lot of critics’ “Best of 2018” lists when the end of the year rolls around.
A Quiet Place is that rare gem of a scary movie that’s both familiar and original, horrifying and heartbreaking. The film opens with shots of a ghost town, where a family scavenges an abandoned market for supplies. It’s not unlike scenes from The Walking Dead, or really any sort of post-apocalypic movie, except with one noticeable difference—the family moves in utter silence, using sign language to communicate and walking barefoot to avoid making any noise. It’s clear that there’s some sort of danger lurking, but what? Tragedy strikes almost immediately, leaving each remaining family member marked with grief and doubly aware of how high the stakes are.
Flash forward one year, where we find out that vicious, extraterrestrial creatures—presumably the cause of the world’s current desolate state—are haunting the area, ones who use their extremely keen sense of hearing to hunt their prey. This has forced the Abbott family—parents Lee and Evelyn (John Krasinski and real-life wife Emily Blunt) and their two kids Regan and Marcus (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe)—to live a very careful and limited existence.
At first glance, their life is simple and idyllic. They grow their own food, hang the laundry out to dry, share family meals, and play monopoly together. But they’re also extremely isolated, unable to travel far and with no way of learning the fate of the rest of the world. They live in constant fear, knowing that even as small a noise as a sneeze could mean death. As if that’s not enough, there’s a baby on the way—a fragile, unpredictable, noisy baby. One of the film’s many strengths is how well it fleshes out the unfamiliar reality of this world. The Abbots prepare for the addition to their family meticulously: there’s a tiny, padded box, attached to an oxygen mask; a cave-like room under the house protected by a mattress; and walls sound-proofed with layers and layers of newspaper glued to its surfaces. The birth of a baby should be a joyous and anticipated occasion, but in this setting, it’s a liability and a threat of future heartbreak.
But in some ways, the Abbott’s are uniquely prepared for their circumstances…older daughter Regan is deaf, which means her family is already adept at communicating wordlessly, a factor that helps preserve some normality in their lives. And despite their grief, they’re also extremely close, both parents determined to raise their children with warmth, humor, and love.
Krasinski and especially Blunt are almost more excellent than they need to be for a genre film. Tasked with the difficult feat of communicating subtle emotions wordlessly, they excel. The depth of their relationship off-screen is apparent and allows them to convey the strength of their marriage and understanding of each other with as little as a simple exchange of looks. (Krasinksi’s years of practice making pleading looks at the camera on The Office can’t hurt either.) This film confirmed my long-standing hunch that Blunt is one of the best actresses in the business, and I couldn’t help but fantasize about her in some of the roles recently given to more famous actresses (she would have been phenomenal in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!).
The performances of Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe also warrant mention. Simmonds, who is deaf in real life, conveys a nuanced mix of defiance and woundedness without uttering a single line, and Jupe tugs at our heartstrings as the the emotional mediator between father and daughter. It’s a relief to see adolescent characters so well fleshed out, instead of being used merely as a plot point or an object against which the adults can react.
Aptly, A Quiet Place is one of the quietest films I’ve seen, which only heightens the sudden outbursts of chaos and violence. (Noisy audiences members were even more of a nuisance than usual, and more than once I found myself thinking “You’re going to get us all killed!” after a rogue cough or crunch). Sound becomes a character unto itself, and it’s a testament to the effect that great sound editing and mixing can have on a story and audience. Sounds mean something different to each character—to Marcus, they’re a source of intense fear (in one scene, blanketed by the sounds of a waterfall, he starts crying in terror when his dad ventures to speak out loud). For Lee and Evelyn, sounds are a warning, and the cause for the hyper-vigilance with which they must parent in order to protect their kids. And for Regan, sound is non-existent, and it’s fascinating to see how this contributes to her fearlessness. One of the subtle themes throughout is that sometimes our weaknesses unexpectedly turn out to be our assets; they’re what keep us human in a world stripped of much of its humanity.
If there are any faults in A Quiet Place, it’s that it can at times feel too tidy; details planted and left for later are obvious, and the way they’re all tied up by the end can seem a little too fortuitous. But this precise setup is also what’s responsible for creating the slowly building (and extremely satisfying) sense of suspense; that we know something’s coming only adds to our wincing and dread when it finally arrives. And there’s enough sorrow and loss to warrant everything that does turn out okay; we earn every break we get.
A Quiet Place also makes a strong case for the PG-13 rating; for years now, I’ve thought that the best films surely fall in the “R” category; anything less would be an artistic limitation. But Oscar Wilde once said “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations,” and this is a film that uses the “limitations” of its rating to its advantage. The absence of gore and overt violence only only heighten the terror; we’re rendered helpless by what we sense but cannot see. And the sweetness of this family, free of any perversions or cruelty, is exactly what makes us care about them so much—they’re a hopeful reminder not just of why we fight to to survive but of what we’re fighting to preserve.