Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet
A Quiet Place
Directed by John Krasinski
Produced by Platinum Dunes and Sunday Night
April 6, 2017
There are any number of things that could have gone wrong with A Quiet Place, an apocalyptic horror film from writer/director/star John Krasinski.
That is the nature of high-wire acts; they are suspenseful to the precise degree at which they tempt catastrophic failure, and this is a high-wire act if there ever was one, a horror movie that weaponizes silence, that renders every sound, down to the most whispery footfall, a potential threat and additional source of tension.
From all reports, audiences are watching it in rapt silence. This is unusual enough, in a cinematic landscape where so many theatre patrons think themselves obliged to provide constant commentary, explaining even the simplest plot points to one another (as with the one fellow I recently encountered who made sure the appearance of a freighter was underlined by his observation, “It’s a boat.”). Not here. This is the movie that has made many audiences, nationwide, shut up: hoarding their own inane comments and even their crunchy popcorn, in service of allowing the film to play out undisturbed. The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated. This is not the silence some movies accomplish with ennui. It is the silence only a damn few achieve by making audiences afraid to disturb what’s happening.
It’s a movie about a nuclear family, which means that it relies on our willingness to believe that the protagonists really do have the posited relationships and that they really are bound by the ties of blood; it is a movie that requires an absolute minimum of dialogue, which means that it doesn’t work if the actors can’t express the majority of the feelings via non-verbal communication; and it’s a movie that sketches in the necessary exposition a bit clumsily (via convenient newspaper clippings), but nevertheless uses that method in a record period of time, trusting the audience to pick up the essentials as they go.
Finally, it is a movie pitting human beings against literal monsters, which is always death if the audience can’t be made to sign on to transactional acceptance of those monsters for the duration of the story. That is key. As any number of well-meaning films have found out, a badly designed (or insufficiently well-hidden) monster is a direct pathway to guffaws, instead of chills.
This is especially critical if, in order to provide a satisfying denouement, you also plan to equip the monsters with a fatal weakness to be unveiled at the eleventh hour. That trick is frequently necessary. But botch it and you botch everything. People are still laughing about the aliens who shrink from water and are vulnerable to baseball bats in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Up to that point, you had a fairly effective low-key thriller centering on family dynamics. After that, you had an immortal punch line.
And yet this movie avoids all those pitfalls. It’s kind of brilliant; tapping into primal fears, the congenital need to hide from things faster and stronger and more pitiless from us, while protecting our own. It doesn’t resonate much deeper than that, in the sense that last year’s Get Out did, but as a riveting creature feature it proves capable of transferring the need for near-silence imposed on its characters, to hoarded breath on the part of its audience. It’s not deep. But by Gad is it heartfelt. It doesn’t wink at us at all.
The premise is simple. At some point within the last few months, a “meteor” (that explanation provided by one of those convenient newspaper clippings) delivered unto this planet an infestation of ravenous monsters, armored and vicious and drawn by the slightest sound. Civilization has pretty much fallen, to the point where all radio frequencies have fallen silent. (As with The Walking Dead, the likelihood of that happening in light of the specific capabilities the monsters evidence, versus what we know of actual real-world military capabilities, is best left unexamined; just nod and roll with it.)
It is onto this stage that ventures one family, including father, mother, and three children (including one hearing-impaired girl, whose condition has happily equipped them all with knowledge of sign language), raiding an abandoned pharmacy for necessary antibiotics. Something terrible happens right away, and we have an interregnum of many months, after which we rejoin the surviving family members, who are still plugging away, only this time with the Mom (Emily Blunt) in her last month of pregnancy. An early hour shows us how they manage to support their lives in this world with no sound, and then we get one terrible night with an escalating series of crises, leading to the climax.
It’s a rather basic and schematic setup for a horror film that works as well as it does because of a number of considerable strengths.
Key among them is that first hour or so, establishing the sheer care this family puts into remaining quiet all the time (and what arrangements they have made for the squalling infant, once it arrives.) They dread sound, they have a few minor brushes with trouble, they show that they pretty much have it handled despite a few issues, and the movie takes time establishing all this before overturning their apple-cart. Timing is strong even when the action becomes frenetic, and it needs to be said that even then, none of it is paced at the spastic strobe-light pace of so many modern action movies; the situations are given time to flower, the cliffhangers time to engage our dread.
Second would be the sound department. This is a movie that makes economic use of sound by design, but all of it, from the softest gasps to the ominous creak of floorboards, is balanced with sparing use of music and the (eventual) more catastrophic noises that bring danger running. It is throughout a use of sound technology that should (but one fears won’t) be remembered at award-season: atmospheric and frequently terrifying and, throughout, the story’s secret weapon.
John Krasinski, who co-wrote A Quiet Place with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, and who also directed and stars, is best known for playing the amiable Jim Halpert for eight years in the U.S. version of the international sitcom The Office. He’s starred in a few other things and he’s directed a couple of other features effectively enough, but his work has tended toward light comedy, and few would have guessed that he had this thing in him, either as director or as performer. As director, he does a superb job of maintaining our spatial orientation, keeping the tension just outside the limits of the frame, hiding the monsters as long as he possibly can and then keeping the pace relentless once it needs to be. As performer, he shows a trait previously rare in his filmography, a capacity for communicating the pain that goes with knowing that one’s loved ones are in danger, and having only limited ability to help them.
Emily Blunt, who you had to love in Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow even if you bore no love for the films, anchors much of the middle of the film, during an interval when her character goes through a couple of forms of hell simultaneously.
Relative newcomer Millicent Simmonds is, in only her second film, downright perfect as the resentful and angry hearing-impaired daughter. It deserves to be noted here that she actually is deaf and has been since birth. The film should be commended for casting appropriately, but it wouldn’t matter were she not able to hold up her part of the film to the degree that she does. I repeat: perfect. You could call her the movie’s real hero, and you would be right.
This is perhaps the best place to note that while I detected no place where the characters were named on screen, they are named in the credits: members of the Abbott family, who just don’t call each other by name, much, as they are the only folks around and they happen to know who they are.
And now that I’ve told you they have names, you can now forget that without penalty. You will know who they are too.
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