May contain spoilers
The horror movie genre is the source of some innovative film making lately and, following on the success of “Get Out,” which picked up an Oscar for Jordan Peele’s screenplay, “A Quiet Place” is a taut and clever entry into the field.
Directed, co-written (with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) and starring John Krasinski, the film opens with the Abbott family silently padding barefoot around an abandoned grocery store. A title simply states “89 days.” The youngest child, Beau, played by Cade Woodward, draws a rocket in chalk on the floor. He uses sign language to tell his father, Lee, that it will take them all away. On his way out he takes a toy rocket, complete with batteries, and the family head home.
It turns out toy rockets that make noise are a bad idea in this world. Moments later, boom! — we are all in.
Jump to just over a year later and we see the family in a farmhouse that is rigged to eliminate sound. Cloth dice knitted game pieces on a board game. The floorboards are marked to indicate which ones don’t creak.
Lee has built a basement lab, complete with radio equipment, cameras that show grainy images of the surroundings, and news cuttings that scream “It’s Sound” and indicate that something has happened. On a white board there is a note that there are three of “them.” I love that we are not given a massive backstory. Something has happened. Some sort of threat is here. Our goal is to survive. Do we really care what came before? Does it even matter?
There is often a tendency for film makers to over-explain things, to bog the action down with backstory. We are given just enough info to establish that there are alien monsters who are blind but have super hearing. They are quick and lethal once they hear you. So shh….
The family, meanwhile, is trying to live as normal a life as they can. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee are affectionate, they eat family dinners, the teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is moody, and the son Marcus (Noah Jupe) is being a kid, albeit silently, and gives us a fantastic face that expresses fear with wide-eyed sincerity.
Regan is deaf, as is Simmonds herself, and her deafness is a strong component of the story. Presumably, the family being able to sign has helped their initial survival. Lee is constantly working to build a hearing aid for his daughter. Simmonds gives an excellent nuanced performance.
There is something inherently tense about the ongoing silence which draws us all into the Abbotts’ world, as we sit, mostly silent, in the darkened theater. Every footstep makes the heart skip a beat. Audiences have even taken to scolding people for eating popcorn to loudly. In order for a horror film to work, the audience must become part of the show and become immersed in the situation. “A Quiet Place” certainly brings us along for the ride.
Oh, by the way, Evelyn is heavily pregnant. What kind of people would bring a child into a world where the very thing that children do — make noise — could bring calamity on the whole family? And how is she expecting to give birth quietly? Children in a post-apocalyptic world are necessary if humanity is to survive, but they are always a huge problem in the survival stakes.
The subtle thread that runs through the film is the father-daughter relationship. It is not deafness that is the source of their inability to communicate, but rather how does a father show his love when his every effort is for survival? Ultimately, his love is expressed in a sound she cannot hear.
One could argue that the monsters are a little derivative, but this film is really not about them. They are simply something to overcome. The really scary thing is the silence. There is danger in everyday items, like a creaky floorboard, a rusty nail, a picture frame. When every sound can mean death, everything is a threat.
Krasinski’s direction wisely doesn’t overdo it. A less sure hand would have had kids running through wind chimes or some other contrived noise maker. By keeping it simple, he keeps it real. And that’s where the tension and fear lies.
“A Quiet Place” is a masterpiece of storytelling. There is no real on-screen violence. The monsters are mostly just glimpsed blurs until the end, yet the film cleverly builds the suspense. It is a story of a family and every parent’s fear — that they cannot really protect their kids. And that’s the scariest thing of all.
“A Quiet Place” is rated PG-13. For best effect, see it at the theater, or at least somewhere really quiet.