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Film Review: A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place (2018; Directed by John Krasinski)

A family-under-siege horror-thriller, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place pits a familial unit of savvy survivalists against sharp-eared monsters that pounce and kill viciously at the smallest sound and have thus devastated human civilization. This simple and potent premise provides ample fodder for a series of taut and sometimes ingenious sequences of tension and nervous peril, as one might reasonably expect from the genre. But it also fuels clever “what if?” world-building, canny visual storytelling, and themes of nuclear-family unity, sacrifice, and reproductive determination that might have been dubbed “conservative values” in some halcyon time before that political/cultural movement’s collective embrace of the glaring embodiment of everything they were supposed to be fighting against exposed the blinding hypocrisy at the heart of that buzz phrase.

A Quiet Place is mostly but not entirely wordless, in light of the predicament facing the family of characters that feature in it. Though some words are mouthed and full-volume speech enabled by masking sounds like a cascading waterfall, most of the information in the film is communicated either visually or through the use of American Sign Language (ASL), which the Abbott family is fortunate enough to know in this situation due to their teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) being congenitally deaf. Although the ASL gestures were subtitled upon the film’s theatrical release, the version I streamed did not have any, but very little information was lost without them. For those familiar with ASL, A Quiet Place must be especially rewarding, like silent films would have been to expert lip readers: full of nuance and peculiarities of expression (much of which was developed for the film by Simmonds, who is herself hearing-impaired and fluent in ASL) that would not be evident to non-ASL-sign-speakers.

Holed up in their farmhouse and rural environs, the Abbotts maintain some measure of semi-normality amidst elaborately cautious practices that keep the sounds that the living of their lives generate to an absolute minimum to avoid attracting the blind but acutely-hearing monsters that dwell in their vicinity. Father Lee (Krasinski) has an engineering/techie background, and spends his time scanning shortwave radio for morse-code word of other survivors, maintaining sophisticated early-warning systems and crisis failsafes, fashioning cochlear implants for Regan (which will prove important in ways he could not have imagined), and teaching his jumpy son Marcus (Noah Jupe) rules and practices of survival, life, and manhood. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s real-life wife too) cooks dinner in an oven in the floorboards, quietly does laundry, maintains the family medical supplies (she was once a doctor), gives Marcus a measure of school-like education, and prepares for the arrival of the child that she carries inside her and will soon deliver into a dangerous milieu that will instantly and aggressively seek to strangle its cries. Regan acts out like a rebellious teenager whose angst is compounded by her inability to throw vocal tantrums and slam doors, but she is also just more haunted and self-flagellatory than the others about the trauma that looms large in the family’s past and that they blame themselves for in their own ways: the loss of their youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward) to a monster, as depicted in the film’s opening sequence.

The Abbotts move around barefoot along marked paths – by sand outdoors, by paint on the creaky wood-floored farmhouse – to avoid making noise, have strung lightbulb chains around the surrounding fields that turn from white to red by the flick of a switch if danger is near, and even play Monopoly with cloth boardgame pieces to dampen even the slightest sound. But circumstances will nonetheless conspire to alert the creatures to their presence despite all of their care: namely Evelyn’s inconveniently-timed labour contractions and a pesky nail on the basement stairs.

A Quiet Place is an expert example of a bottled thriller, surprisingly so given that it’s in the hands of genre neophyte and previously undistinguished director Krasinski. He benefits greatly from the intelligent foundations provided by the script by Brian Woods and Scott Beck (which Krasinski rewrote), and even more from Marco Beltrami’s pulse-quickening score and Blunt’s showcase performance mixing petrification with dogged, competent determination (she was nominated for that ultimate horror-acting honour, the MTV Movie Award for Most Frightened Performance, formerly and wonderfully known as Best Scared-as-Shit Performance; MTV’s cultural relevance has dwindled away to next to nothing over the past decade, but their shamelessly goofball movie awards will always be a highlight of the entertainment calendar). Her final moment in the film’s closing shot is pure, triumphant badassery. Fuck ’em up, Mary Poppins.

Truly, though, A Quiet Place is a wonder of sound design, which Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn (an Oscar winner for the sound on The Lord of the Rings and King Kong) use dynamically and keenly to build tension, reveal character perspective, and amplify moments of terror and catharsis, pressure and release. The muffled sounds of the Abbotts’ movements demonstrates their tiptoeing existence; the total silence of deaf Regan’s perception places the audience into her head and sensory world; the emergence of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” when Evelyn shares her earbud and a slow dance with Lee is a comforting embrace of sonics in a sometimes unsettling dome of quiet. The harsh sharpness of loud, sudden sonic intrusions into the Abbott’s secure soundproofing of their lives instantly communicates the immediate danger those sounds represent, the catastrophe they portend.

A Quiet Place mostly presents as a straightforward and engaging potboiler, but political implications are never too far away. Krasinski himself (a Democratic Party donor) conceived of the premise as a metaphor of sorts for the importance of moral acts in the face of persistent horrors and injustices in America’s Age of Trump, an argument against keeping your head down and hoping merely to survive the chaos around you. There is a certain resonance to this effect in A Quiet Place, an echo of our unpredictable and often dangerous reality that compels silent compliance and avoidance of drawing notice rather than confronting the horrors that lurk in the margins, always waiting to pounce on the vulnerable.

But A Quiet Place is hard to pigeonhole politically and likewise features definite conservative themes. Perhaps due to his B-level film career trajectory or perhaps due to certain old-fashioned centrist ideological convictions, Krasinski has sometimes gravitated towards nominally right-wing or at least more traditionally-themed productions: romantic comedies, family dramas, even a pulpy, militaristic dramatization of the 2012 attack by Islamic militants on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya (which became a cause célèbre on the conspiracy-minded, rabidly anti-Clinton American Right) that was directed by glistening pop-art USA-chant propagandist Michael Bay (one of A Quiet Place‘s producers). A Quiet Place is certainly no MAGA affair, but it does focus on a white rural nuclear family with demonstrated religious faith, gestures at traditional monastic asceticism (they are surnamed the Abbotts, after all), and even nods at pro-life sentiments with Evelyn’s pregnancy and labour in spite of the extremely obvious dangers that a wailing infant presents in a situation where any sound summons instant-eviscerating hunters.

Like a lot of genre films that present building, consecutive scenarios of frightening peril, A Quiet Place features at least a half dozen moments that could be nitpicked. “Why are you doing that?” and “That is NOT a good idea” escapes the mouths of the audience as surely as nervous gasps or constricted breaths, no doubt. But these moments of perceived, detached enlightened perspective (we know what to do even if the characters don’t) are part of the fun of horror-thrillers like A Quiet Place, too, especially when they are as well-conceived and executed as this movie ultimately is.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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