“A Quiet Place” is far from being a silent movie, but it has almost no dialogue. The horror science fiction film depicts a near-future in which making any sound, no matter how quiet, draws an immediate, violent and cruel death sentence meted out by mysterious creatures. The actor-screenwriter-producer John Krasinski sought to tell a story about a family that must remain trapped in order to survive. The silence is a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that works well.
Something interesting, albeit hard to define, has happened to horror movies recently. In the past year alone, “It” set a box-office record by becoming the most profitable film in the history of the genre, earning $700 million. “Get Out,” written and directed by Jordan Peele, raised the genre’s prestige by winning the Academy Award for best original screenplay. More important, it seems that more and more interesting filmmakers are willing to try instilling fear, and audiences are increasingly willing to be scared. Against the backdrop of the rise in the status of the horror movie, “A Quiet Place” is itself a symbol of this pivot.
Krasinski, known for playing Jim in the American version of “The Office,” took on the roles of writer, director and lead male character just a year ago. He had directed two forgettable movies (“Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and “The Hollars”), yet maintained his stature as a Hollywood actor and producer. Until a few years ago, the very choice of a horror film for his third movie would have been considered admitting failure, but the genre is undergoing an evolution. Only a year ago, Peele was a comic in a successful yet minor television series, and now he is a respected director. While he turned to horror for his first movie out of love for the genre, Krasinski got there almost by chance. Bryan Woods and Scott Beck wrote the original story. Krasinski joined them as a screenwriter whose main interest was family dramas, in fact. He has admitted to interviewers that horror is not his cup of tea, but he wanted to explore a family in extremis. To do this he cast his wife, the actress Emily Blunt, to star alongside him. All this enabled him to make a movie in which the horror serves the family drama, rather than the opposite.
With no explanation, we meet the Abbott family in a postapocalyptic near future, around 2020. Swift, mysterious creatures lurk everywhere, seemingly using echolocation to hunt their human prey. The Abbotts learn to move quietly and barefooted, roaming abandoned parts of upstate New York. Having learned that a cough or a noisy misstep can lead to a quick and violent death within seconds, they move about in hushed, ever-anxious silence. The opening scene makes it abundantly clear just how cruel this world is, in which no one is safe.
A challenge to the actors
Because very little is explained, we have to infer that the Abbotts survived thanks to their deaf teenage daughter/sister (Millicent Simmonds). Her parents and her two brothers also learned sign language, so they were prepared for the age of silence when it came. Most of the little dialogue there is in the movie is in hand movements, limiting the communication among the four. The family retreats to a farm after Blunt's character becomes pregnant, and they have an almost-normal life there. Raising a rebellious teen and calming an anxious child (Noah Jupe, “Wonder”) are difficult for any family. For the Abbotts, apparently, it’s a recipe for disaster.
“A Quiet Place” presents a genuine challenge to the actors, with its paucity of words, but also a genuine opportunity for them to demonstrate their nonverbal communication skills. Sign language moves the tale forward, but it is only part of the conceit. Eyes are the major instrument of expression, mostly used wisely. The chemistry between the couple is clear, but the director-screenwriter was smart enough to recognize who steals the show. Blunt stands out, and also turns in one of her best performances to date. It is interesting to think of her character in the film — a tough mother in a world of monsters — as another layer in her acting repertoire, a moment before she risked being typecast as a different kind of mother. Blunt will play Mary Poppins in the sequel to the 1964 movie, which has late-December release dates in Britain and the United States.
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It’s tempting to call “A Quiet Place” a silent film, but it is something else. Krasinski may be using music and effects to intensify the tension and drama, but he also gives silence the respect it deserves. The silence is natural, not artificial. Breaths, steps, streaming water and cockroaches fill the void. In this imposed silence, as in a movie theater, people are tempted to whisper even when it’s forbidden. The quiet is quite deafening, and it’s done well. In contrast, the world that Krasinski created is a bit confused and filled with contradictions. It doesn’t dwell on answers to questions that arise from viewing it and leaves too many issues unresolved. At the same time, it lingers too long on newspaper clippings and tired explanations to inefficiently provide the little he wants to explain.
Like “Get Out,” in which the role of horror is secondary to the main concern, that of race in the United States, “A Quiet Place” is not a routine horror movie. The attempt to surprise and shock exists, but it’s not the focus. The film feeds deeper fears, in particular parents’ constant fear for their children’s welfare, and in effect the entire nuclear family is put to the test as a unit founded on cooperation. It touches every possible emotional angle, from a mother struggling to comfort her son without words and a father’s inability to protect his daughter. The family lost its voice just when it needed it the most, and it must create new rules of conduct for itself.
The comparison to “Get Out” is fair, in light of the attempt to offer more-intelligent horror. While Peele’s movie addressed the fears of a black minority in white society, “A Quiet Place” offers a similar experience for anxious parents in the 21st century. In the past, children went out without a phone, and their parents could only hope that they would return on time, if at all. Today, ignorance is a privilege parents with WhatsApp no longer have. The moment that it’s possible to maintain constant phone contact, every parent is happy to do so — paradoxically, it only preserves the anxiety. The American village in “A Quiet Place,” with its green cornfields, symbolizes the attempt to return to an obsolete American ideal of simplicity and family values. However, it is no longer possible. There is no going back. A heavy punishment is meted out to all those who fail to raise perfect children. Parents who take their eyes off their children for a moment risk devastation. It’s a form of hyperarousal that doesn’t stop during sleep, an anxiety with which many parents can identify.