I don’t have kids, and I plan on never having them. As actor Sam Rockwell once said in an interview, “I definitely don't want to become a parent. It's not my bag.” Same here. So, I’ll never understand that special bond that a parent has with a child. I’ll never have that feeling that I would do anything, including sacrificing my own life, for the well-being of my children. John Krasinski, the director, co-writer, and star of the new horror film A Quiet Place does have kids. He wanted to explore the qualities of the parent/child bond when he did a rewrite on Bryan Woods and Scott Beck’s original screenplay after he signed on to direct the film.
I can’t say from personal experience if Krasinski got it right. You’ll have to ask a parent. As someone who is in a committed romantic partnership, though, and has bonds with friends and family, I can say he nailed this story of protecting your loved ones. A Quiet Place is absorbing, gripping, and terrifying.
The film is set in the year 2020. For a little over a year, giant monsters have roamed the Earth, and humans have been their main source of prey. The twist is, these blood-chilling beasties are sightless. They hunt using only their highly developed sense of hearing. The key to survival is absolute silence. The Abbott family – and presumably others, although we never leave the perspective of this one family – have managed to stay alive by adapting to the threat. They rely on sign language to communicate, walk on trails of campfire ash when outside, and have even painted on the non-creaky floorboards of their house, to protect from a noisy misstep.
Humans are aspirational creatures, and the movie makes a – pardon the pun – unspoken nod towards this trait. The Abbots participate in a nightly ritual of starting a bonfire to signal other survivors in the area. It shows that even when cut off from the rest of society, people will always struggle not simply to survive, but to thrive. The insular world of the Abbotts, and the necessary precautions they must take, is an echo of the world in another movie. Last year’s It Comes at Night explores similar themes, and both films do so exceptionally well.
A Quiet Place is a cinematic experience that relies on silence. In other hands, this could have been employed as nothing more than a gimmick. Krasinski and his team did an admirable job of avoiding that. Once we’ve accepted the movie’s internal logic, the silence becomes integral to the storytelling. There are also moments in the movie that break the tension of this forced quiet.
At one point, the father of the Abbott clan, Lee, takes his young son, Marcus, on a trip to a local stream to empty their homemade fish traps. The fact that Lee wants to take Marcus and not his big sister, Regan, makes her upset. This might seem like a typical sibling rivalry dynamic, but it has an added emotional weight due to a shocking event early in the film. Regan blames herself for what happened, and she’s convinced her dad does, too. This scene, and others like it, allows A Quiet Place to deftly tackle two big themes in subtle, just-under-the-surface ways. The whole Abbott family must deal with grief and Regan in particular struggles with feelings of not being loved because of her past actions.
Marcus, meanwhile, doesn’t want to go on this fishing trip because the monsters have so traumatized him. The slightest sound sends him into a panic. Lee takes Marcus to a nearby waterfall to teach his son a lesson. He shows Marcus that the monsters can’t hear them if their sounds are covered up by a bigger noise. Encouraging Marcus to scream at the top of his lungs also lets the boy blow off some steam. This scene, where the two can speak at full volume, provides the audience with a much-needed respite from the tension as well.
The few, all-too-brief instances in the movie that allowed me to relax my tensed muscles – mostly in my neck and shoulders – were like oases in the desert. At a brisk, tightly paced 95 minutes, A Quiet Place excels at building and sustaining a sense of dread. The last third of the picture is relentless in its staging of heart-pounding action. Krasinski’s editor, Christopher Tellefsen, who began his career over twenty years ago and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 for his work on Moneyball, uses cross cutting to build unbelievable suspense.
The climax that Tellefsen orchestrates begins with Evelyn, the mother of the Abbott family. Evelyn is pregnant, and she goes into labor while Lee and Marcus are coming back from rounding up the fish, and Regan is away from the house. The idea of caring for a screaming infant in a world that demands total silence is daunting enough, but how do you get through the act of childbirth itself in such a setting? In a brilliant example of Krasinski’s visual style, Evelyn sends a distress signal to her family when she switches on the red light-bulbs that they have strung up around the house. Eventually the movie flits between three locations as Lee sends Marcus to enact an emergency plan to help Evelyn get through the delivery.
This is John Krasinski’s third feature film as director. The first two, 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and The Hollars in 2016, were financial and critical misfires, but A Quite Place should buck that trend. It shows he has real talent both in front of and behind the camera. Krasinski is most famous for playing lovable prankster Jim Halpert on the U.S. version of the sitcom The Office. As Lee in this film, he displays moving dramatic acting chops – especially in that climax – opposite his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, who is excellent as Evelyn. Blunt was reportedly so impressed when she read Kraskinski’s rewrite of the script that she asked him to cast her in the film.
Fourteen-year-old actress Millicent Simmonds plays Regan, and she is another highlight of the movie. Her unique insight into her character was something Kraskinski insisted on having when casting the part. Simmonds is deaf, as is her character, and Krasinski wanted a deaf actress because he said it would help with his knowledge and understanding of the movie’s situations. The sound design involving Regan adds another unique touch. Whenever the camera focuses on the character for an extended amount of time, the ambient sounds of the scene – what filmmakers call “room tone,” – are completely removed. For those moments, we hear what Regan hears, and it’s particularly effective.
A Quiet Place is a harrowing and excellent experience, but it’s not without a few weak points. This is a horror movie, and one that uses silence as its main aesthetic. Horror movies have long used the device of the “stinger,” or loud sound effect, to initiate a fright response from the audience. This movie uses plenty of those, and at times they feel a bit cheap. Maybe it’s just because they are even more jarring in a movie that is full of quiet, but the stingers here felt louder and more exploitative the more they were used. There’s also the issue of some sounds attracting the monsters and some not, seemingly when it’s most convenient for the movie.
Also, a plot point in the finale veers dangerously close to M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. The conclusion feels more uplifting than the rest of the movie might make you expect. While I understand the filmmakers’ inclination to provide an upbeat ending, it’s not nearly as emotionally complex as the end of a movie I’ve already mentioned, It Comes at Night. Those few quibbles aside, A Quiet Place provides a hell of a good scare, with real emotional impact running beneath it. It’s a solid achievement from a director who seems to be coming into his own.
Why it got 4 stars:
- A Quiet Place is tightly wound, suspenseful, and flat-out exhilarating storytelling. Outside of maybe Black Panther, this is the most excited I've been coming out of a movie theater so far this year.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I understand people who will find the ending of A Quiet Place a little cheesy. And when I say the ending, I mean the last five seconds of the movie. I was so invested in the movie at that moment that I ate it up.
- It really pained me to circumvent a description of the "shocking event" at the beginning of the movie that I mention in my review. It would be criminal for me to spoil the moment for anyone who hasn't seen the movie. It happens within five minutes of the start, and trust me that I was completely floored by it. It made me question what I had just gotten myself into when I sat down to see A Quiet Place.
- Likewise, before the baby is born, the Abbott parents come up with a rather unique plan on how to keep the new addition to their family quiet. They never discuss it, and the movie shows one shot of the preparation. Once I connected the dots on the plan, though, my blood ran cold.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- If you know me, you know I love Alamo Drafthouse. They have some serious issues to address when it comes to their sexual harassment policies, but as far as the movie watching experience, they are hard to beat. That being said, a movie that depends on a completely silent atmosphere puts in stark relief the short comings of a theater chain that prides itself on asking its customers to be quiet during the show. For A Quiet Place, I was in the seat closest to the exit where the servers duck behind a wall to enter food orders, prepare those orders for delivery, etc. I could hear every whispered conversation about orders and every clank of a fork or spoon. I am not faulting the servers at all. They have a job to do, and there is a certain level of noise that comes with getting that job right. In a movie with a regular soundtrack, I never would have heard a thing. I just found it ironic that the servers were the noisiest part of the experience.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- A new film starring Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here, made some big ripples when it premiered in an unfinished version at last year's Cannes Film Festival. The tale of vengeance and trauma won the director, Lynne Ramsay, the Best Screenplay award, and Phoenix won for best actor.