Review: 'A Quiet Place'

Friday, April 6, 2018
Still from 'A Quiet Place'.

There's a Kind of Hush, All Over the World Tonight

2018 / USA / 90 min. / Directed by John Krasinsky / Opens in wide release on April 6, 2018

by:
Andrew Wyatt

Writer-director John Krasinski’s scary-good creature feature A Quiet Place is bookended by a pair of gestures that reveal, through counter-example, just how timid and senselessly self-indulgent most popcorn features have become in the 2010s. They aren’t the only such instances in the film, and perhaps not even the most significant, but their placement – two smash-cuts to black, one slamming down at end of the film’s prologue, the other concluding the feature as a whole – naturally draws the viewer’s attention.

In the first instance, A Quiet Place straightaway breaks one of the fundamental storytelling taboos of horror filmmaking, in the best possible sense (or worst, depending on your point of view). It’s not a genre proscription that is inviolate – nastier exploitation fare flaunts it all the time – but it is undeniably jarring to see it smashed to smithereens in the opening movement of a mainstream horror-thriller such as this. The message is clear: There is no longer any such thing as “completely safe” in the post-apocalyptic world of Krasinski’s feature, for anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Meanwhile, the final punctuation mark on A Quiet Place is a pitch-perfect flourish, one that clinches the film’s exactly 90-minute running time with the kind of flawless send-off that only comes along once every few years in cinema. It’s superbly satisfying, which points to one of the unassuming virtues of Krasinki’s film as a work of nail-biting pop entertainment. This is a lean and mean horror flick – although also, counter-intuitively, a moody and measured one. The filmmakers have plainly adopted the principle that one should not take a moment longer than is necessary to tell a given story. Another film would have rolled on for ten minutes of epilogue, to no particular end beyond satisfying the director’s ego or multiplex conventions. Krasinski spits out the punchline and drops the mic. In doing so, he invites a standing ovation instead of polite applause.

It’s a little thing, but also significant in a cinematic landscape where every studio genre film seems obliged to push past the 140-minute mark because that’s what genre films are supposed to do nowadays. It also indicates one of A Quiet Place’s most essential strengths: There’s very little that is wasted in this film, in terms of either shots or dialogue. Cinephiles have come to expect this sort of discipline from the medium’s persnickety visual auteurs, such as Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Wes Anderson (Isle of Dogs), or Samuel Maoz (Foxtrot) (to cite just a few recent releases). Krasinski’s formal chops are certainly robust and self-assured – his latest is outstanding in its varied yet meaningful employment of close, medium, and wide shots – but A Quiet Place isn’t the sort of film that invites extravagant screencapping and production design-obsessed cooing. It is, however, a feature that uses its medium with utmost precision and efficiency.

Some of that efficiency is forced on the film by its story. While the screenwriters – Krasinski, Bryan Woods, and Scott Beck – doubtlessly knew they had a killer horror gimmick on their hands, the storytelling constraints that gimmick creates do a marvelous job of focusing the director’s methods. A Quiet Place takes place on an Earth which has been overrun with large predatory creatures – unnamed beasts with an origin that is never elaborated on, to the film’s immense benefit. These monsters, while blind, have preternaturally sensitive hearing. Accordingly, anything louder than a barefoot step on soft earth will inevitably draw these ravenous fiends as surely as blood in the water attracts sharks. Krasinski, then, has put a not-insignificant challenge in his own path, right out of the gate: Telling a compelling story in which the characters spend most of their time desperately attempting to make as little sound as possible. (So much for protracted sci-fi exposition from a windbag scientist character.)

Beginning in media res, some three months after the creatures appeared and modern civilization collapsed under their voracious onslaught, the film introduces the viewer to the Abbott family. They are: dad Lee (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt), young teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), middle son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward), the latter just old enough to comprehend that his world has been turned upside-down. The film’s prologue drops the viewer directly into the Abbotts’ agonizingly hushed world, which is a sensory jolt for anyone accustomed to seeing genre films kick off with an adrenaline-stoking action set-piece. As the family scavenges a small-town drugstore for medications and other supplies, Krasinski establishes the grammar of his story. The Abbotts’ situation, and their relationships with one another, are conveyed primarily through facial expressions, body language, and scraps of matter-of-fact dialogue expressed in American Sign Language (ASL).

The silence of this introduction is so enormous that every creaking seat, muffled cough, and crinkling candy wrapper in the theater is likely to seem ear-splitting to the viewer. Which is, of course, the whole point: A Quiet Place uses this prologue to attune the audience’s senses to its muted world, rather than the cacophony of reality (or that of so many other studio features). Naturally, the film’s silence is broken eventually, in a way that underlines – in the most horrifying way possible – that the stillness of the seemingly abandoned rural countryside is an illusion. Like a rattlesnake’s camouflage, it conceals a lethal threat, one that is swift and pitiless.

The film then jumps forward to approximately a year-and-a-half after the invasion, looking in on the Abbotts as they go about their wary and laborious daily existence. They have managed to hold on to their modest corn farm – with its Norman Rockwell house and peeling, brick-red barn – but their lives have nonetheless changed dramatically. The family now dwells primarily in a hidden cellar underneath the barn, and Lee and Evelyn have adapted the farm to a pre-industrial routine with a certain admirable assiduousness, if not much comfort. They trap fish in the nearby river, can the vegetables they grow, and wash their increasingly tattered clothing by hand.

There are procedures in place, however, that indicate the monstrous threat that still lurks in the forests. Everyone goes barefoot, always. In the farmhouse, Regan steps on painted marks that indicate the spots in the floorboards that don’t creak. The kids play Monopoly with felt tokens and pompom hotels, rolling the dice on a knit blanket. In the cellar of the farmhouse – where the children are forbidden – Lee monitors the farm’s security cameras, scans the shortwave radio, and works to cobble together a new cochlear implant for his daughter, who is deaf. A whiteboard glimpsed at his workstation summarizes the essential facts of the enemy: “Blind. Attack sound. Armored. Travel in packs. 3 confirmed. What is the weakness?”

One quickly deduces that Lee’s hard-edged vigilance is part of the reason that that the family has survived for so long – although this trait has also nurtured understandable resentment in the hormonal Regan. In addition to the usual adolescent chafing at all the strict and exhausting rules, she believes that her father favors his oldest son over her. (Marcus, although younger than his sister, is the one that Lee teaches to catch fish, whereas Regan is ordered to look after her mother while “the men” are away.) The girl is fed up with her father’s emotional remoteness, and with his unsuccessful attempts to build her a new implant, which she perceives as an inept gesture intended to fix a “defect” that endangers the family. Unfortunately, Lee’s painstaking systems for survival will soon be tested to their limits: Evelyn is very pregnant with the couple’s fourth child, and the presence of a newborn baby is extremely incompatible with strict silence.

Krasinski establishes this nerve-wracking scenario with enviable parsimony, relying on a combination of shrewd writing, skillful performances, and old-fashioned “showing not telling” to convey the film’s setting and stakes. (It certainly helps, in this respect, that the feature is focused on only a handful of characters; aside from the Abbotts, only one other living human is ever glimpsed on screen.) The whole cast does fine work, but the film is a particular showcase for Blunt's talent at conveying a gestalt of stark emotions in a single expression. Broadly speaking, A Quiet Place’s plot is well-worn horror-thriller stuff. Monsters hunting people in an isolated, fixed location is a dependable source of seat-squirming terror, although the film’s plot specifics and overall tone most readily call to mind Day of the Triffids (1962), Signs (2002), and The Mist (2007). There are also subtle but clear call-outs to specific scenes in smash genre landmarks such as Aliens (1986) and Jurassic Park (1993), revealing that the film’s DNA contains more than a touch of summer blockbuster.

It may not be bracingly original, but Krasinski’s film executes its simple (one might say atavistic) formula with a wonderful intensity and focus. It’s a story that’s been done before, but here the obligatory jump scares and stomach-knotting tension are enlivened by the confident direction and the film’s novel equation of silence with survival. What’s more, A Quiet Place is queasily unbalanced by the established possibility that any character can be slaughtered at any moment – a notion that most mainstream genre features studiously avoid.

There’s a strain of traditionalism in Krasinski’s film that goes beyond mere Spielbergian lionization of the family unit as an essential bulwark against chaos. It’s evident in the affectionate way that the film regards Jeffrey Beecroft’s outstanding production design, which highlights the quaint, hand-crafted aspects of the Abbotts’ post-apocalyptic existence, down to the patchwork quilt placemats that they still lay on their dinner table each night. However, it’s also detectable in the fact that the family still sits down for dinner each night, their hands joined in prayer, candles burning warmly in the gloom of the barn’s cellar. This is a world in which an old-fashioned, risk-averse, and strongly gendered mode of American living is now essential to survival (both physically and psychologically).

It’s no accident that Krasinki swathes Blunt – his real-life wife and one of the world's most beautiful actresses – in a layered, shapeless wardrobe of calico and wool straight out of a Western. A Quiet Place casts the modern nuclear family backwards in time, where it must eke out a hardscrabble, self-reliant existence on a hostile frontier. Lee’s stoicism and nearly obsessive preparedness point to a centuries-old American archetype: The patriarch whose primary social and moral obligation is to guard his homestead against invaders. Whereas Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) features a screw-up father who fixates on doing one damn thing right – delivering his kids safely to their mother and stepfather’s house – the patriarch of A Quiet Place conditions his success as a protector on every member of the family doing everything right, all the time.

Ultimately, however, the elaborate survival procedures that the Abbotts have established only count for so much in their newly tumultuous and bloodthirsty world. A Quiet Place is a film about being constantly on the brink of disaster, about the bitter anguish of carefully developing and implementing rigorous systems that one knows will inexorably fail. In the broadest terms, this is the agony of all parents – inevitably, our children will be hurt one day, no matter how diligently we might shield them. Evelyn zeroes in on this angst when she rhetorically ties her and Lee’s worth as humans to their ability to defend their offspring: “Who are we if we can’t protect them?” The question is moot, of course. Eventually, our children will be beyond our reach, stranded much like Regan and Marcus eventually become trapped at the farm’s grain silo, as slavering monsters circle ever closer.

However, Krasinski’s film is also keenly attuned to the specific agonies of contemporary American life, perhaps more so than its frontier sensibility initially suggests. The story’s predatory creatures can be regarded as stand-ins for the cruel caprices of the economic instability that now afflicts even ostensibly well-fed, middle -class American families. Krasinski’s feature might be fantasy, but it keenly evokes the exhausting reality where one human slip-up or force majeure – a tardy bill payment, an untimely rate hike, a compulsory car repair – can devastate a financially precarious household. In the film, a battery-powered toy spaceship, its shrill klaxons summoning swift death from the darkness, becomes analogous to the unexpected medical bill, which can send a paycheck-to-paycheck family tumbling into financial disarray and disaster. This, then, is the fundamental cruelty of A Quiet Place’s horrors: Under the tyranny of the monsters’ predations, perpetual fear has become the new normal, even for supposedly hard-working folks who make all the “right” choices.

Rating: B+