Cast: John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe
Director: John Krasinski
Writers: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski
This is a great concept for a horror film. The world has undergone some great disaster and is now overrun by fearsome aliens/monsters who stalk the land preying on human beings. The beasts are completely blind but have enhanced hearing, allowing them to pick up sounds from miles away. The human survivors must therefore live their lives in a state of eternal dread as any sound they make could get them killed. What I love about this concept is that (1) it necessarily requires the film to be creative in its use of visuals and sound when conveying the story and (2) it invites the viewer to actively take part. The film is so good at establishing the terror of sound that the entire audience ends up undertaking its own vow of silence, hesitant to make so much as the slightest peep for fear of summoning the creatures. It is one thing to be frightened as an individual, the collective sense of anxiety that this film was able to inspire is really something else, which is why it pays to see A Quiet Place in the cinema.
Caught up in this silent nightmare are husband and wife Lee (John Krasinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe). They’ve managed to get by together as a family for the most part, largely due to their fluency in sign language, a by-product of Regan’s deafness. Through tragedy and trauma they’ve been able to achieve what could charitably be called ‘normalcy’ in a world as frightening and deadly as this. They walk place to place on bare feet along paths made of sand, they play board games where the plastic playing pieces have been replaced by paper cut-outs, and they hold hands in silent solidarity during mealtimes. This status quo however is a tremendously precarious one and there are forces at work that threaten their very survival. Most worryingly, Evelyn is several weeks pregnant and the day when she will have to give birth (a difficult enough task without any doctors or anaesthetic at hand, never mind the noise problem) is surely approaching. Through all the dread and trepidation, Lee works tirelessly on securing their hideout and unearthing what means he can of combatting the frightful predators, intent on keeping his family safe whatever the cost.
Cinema has a rich legacy of horror-survival stories with fearsome monsters from the xenomorph in Alien to the Thing in The Thing to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and Krasinski makes his contribution to the genre with the worthy confidence of a veteran horror director. He is precise and economic in his storytelling, with seldom a shot that does not contribute in some way to the scares, the emotional stakes, or the world around these characters. When we’re at the farm where the bulk of the movie takes place, Krasinski takes care to ensure that the geography is never lost on us. We are constantly aware of where everybody is, how far they are from each other, and who can see or hear what. He is also very good in his use of foreshadowing, more so because of the auditory nature of the storytelling. There are certain objects, most notably an exposed nail in the floor and a literal Chekhov’s gun, that inspire anxiety in their silence because we know that they will come into play at some point near the end and that the result will be exactly the kind of noise we’ve been conditioned to dread. What’s more, in a world where a loud and abrupt noise means almost certain death, the use of the jump scare is actually justified, although even then Krasinski takes care not to exploit that advantage for all its worth. He understands that horror isn’t really about trying to scare the audience, it’s about making them fear for the characters and he never loses sight of that simple notion.
Through a nuanced understanding of the visual language of cinema and the strong, expressive performances of the cast, we are able to identify with this family and feel for them throughout their ordeal. Starring opposite Krasinski is real-life wife and mother of his children Emily Blunt and the bond they share as spouses and parents is powerfully felt in every scene they share. In a movie that deals heavily with the idea of a family working together to keep each other safe, secure, and alive, the most vital ingredient to make it all work is that feeling of familial affection. The movie understands this and works harder to convey that feeling to us than it does with any other element, a move that pays off splendidly. The two children also deserve praise in this regard, especially the actually deaf Simmonds who, as well as having to deal with the same problems of being unable to express herself through noise, must also deal with the obstacle of being unable to hear the danger in any given moment, a source of both anxiety and even guilt for her. The most remarkable thing about any of these performances though is how intense they are given how controlled they necessarily have to be. In this world, none of these characters have the luxury of grunting in anger, sobbing in despair, or screaming in fear. The silence that defines their lives is as oppressive as it is terrifying and the actors do a marvellous job of conveying the agony of living without giving in to these basic human impulses.
That repression of the human condition is ultimately what makes A Quiet Place such a scary film. It’s not just the fear of being eaten by creepy aliens/monsters, it’s the torment of living in a world where a vital part of what makes us human has been taken away. We live in such a noisy world that it’s difficult to conceive of a life of total silence. We use sound to express ourselves and to reach out to others; we even use it when we’re on our own because we find that the mere presence of sound can somehow make us feel less alone. Many of the great horror films are about taking a fundamental part of our nature and weaponising it against ourselves, forcing us into a realm where we must adapt into lesser versions of ourselves in order to survive. If the characters are able to overcome the threat, we feel empowered; if they are defeated by it, we feel despondent. Either way we are deeply affected by what we’ve seen. A Quiet Place is one of the most profoundly affective horror films of recent years and it is truly a cinematic experience to behold.