This horror hybrid’s actions definitely speak louder than words.
Part B-movie creature feature, part familial chamber piece, A Quiet Place is a gleeful combo platter of horror tropes that manages to coalesce into something that’s both derivative and yet undeniably unique.
Directed by and starring John Krasinski (in his third foray behind the camera), alongside his real-life wife Emily Blunt, it’s a film that’s seething with parental anxieties and adolescent rage — take out the monsters and the film could be a credible domestic drama about the damage that can be caused when families don’t communicate.
Our story begins 78 days after some unexplained catastrophe has reduced America (and perhaps the entire world) to a post-apocalyptic ghost town, in which the few survivors live in self-enforced silence, lest they attract the attention of hideous, near-indestructible beasts who are completely blind but enticed by sound. Krasinski and Blunt’s characters are perhaps better equipped to deal with this new status quo than most, since one of their kids is deaf (played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, who’s utterly riveting), meaning that the family is already accustomed to using sign language. To say much more would be to spoil the film’s many delights, but it’s probably safe to assume that things escalate quickly, and while there are moments of levity to help release some of the audience’s jitters, this is a film that’s determined to get a reaction out of you, and proves very skilled at doing so.
A Quiet Place is far from the first horror project to use silence as a conceit — almost two years ago to the day, another thriller featuring a deaf protagonist, Hush, also had its world premiere at South By Southwest (and let’s not forget the iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode of the same name) — but it’s clearly fertile ground for filmmakers to explore our fears about being unable to express ourselves. Even mundane tasks like driving, walking down creaky stairs, or taking a pill become fraught with tension when the slightest noise could mean your immediate and grisly demise, and that’s not even counting the basic human reflexes to laugh, or cry, or yelp when you’re in pain.
The movie does a remarkable job of finding increasingly dire situations to put its characters in (poor Blunt, in particular, is put through the wringer in ways that would seem almost farcical, if she didn’t play them with such compelling conviction), and while Krasinski wisely keeps the monsters offscreen for the most part, seen only in brief flashes or from a distance for the first two acts, the visual effects are surprisingly impactful when we finally get a good look at them.
Krasinski’s direction is assured and often artful here; while the film unrepentantly relies on jump scares for its biggest shocks, the actor-director (who also has a writing credit on the film, along with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck) still manages to establish an unrelenting undercurrent of tension that hums beneath every scene, aided by some truly inventive sound design. By taking the time to ground the audience inside each character’s perspective — subtly but effectively juxtaposing the ambient noise the other characters experience with the oppressive vacuum Simmonds’ character lives in — we immediately have an emotional bond with these characters even without knowing their names.
The film’s one shortcoming is its score, relying on screeching cues to signpost its scares; at some points the music is so overwrought, it drowns out the drama instead of heightening it. The film’s opening scene is presented almost entirely without music, and you can’t help but wonder whether A Quiet Place would’ve been more effective if it relied only on diegetic sounds, rather than a traditional score — the effect was certainly palpable in the audience during the SXSW premiere; one woman in front of me started to get up and clearly thought better of it at one point because the scene was so quiet, making me keenly aware of just how much noise humans make without thinking about it.
At a brisk 95 minutes, A Quiet Place doesn’t waste too much time explaining the rules of this world beyond the obvious “noise = death” equation; there are clues sprinkled throughout, but the whole thing takes a fairly Cloverfield approach of keeping us on a need-to-know basis. And yet the depth of the world-building is impressive, given the limited narrative real estate — from the sensible way the family has modified a Monopoly board to make it quieter, to a genius light-based warning system, this world feels believably lived-in and not too far removed from our own. Not everything makes sense, especially in terms of what the monsters can hear and when, and A Quiet Place generally works best when you don’t think about it too hard.
But if you’re willing to suspend your belief and go along for the ride, Krasinski and his team have created a thrilling and disarmingly emotional place to spend your time.