Suffering the sounds of silence
With the proliferation of content across a cornucopia of platforms, there can be little argument that modern American society is—among other descriptors—loud. Advertising, entertainment, politics, reportage, commentary, and personal communication fill speakers large and small with an olio of sounds and voices. People can make good use of the various technologies, to be sure, but the output can also become an auditory blur, an acoustical agglomeration that devolves into mere noise.
Into this contemporary backdrop of digital clangor and ascendant carnival barkers, director John Krasinski has delivered the most aurally muted film this side of The Artist. Unlike that 2011 Best Picture, a silent movie crafted without a dialogue track, A Quiet Place allows its audience to hear the words of its characters, but the screenplay for the most part eschews audible conversation. Offered in whispers, only a handful of spoken lines make it into the film. More often, the characters interact with looks, gestures, physical contact, and a smattering of American Sign Language.
The trailers for the film make plain the reason for its hushed nature. Fearsome, sightless creatures with an acute sense of hearing stalk the landscape. The blurb for A Quiet Place affirms the basic story idea: “If they hear you, they hunt you.”
The film opens on Day 89 of some unnamed, undescribed event—plainly the beginning of whatever unleashed the optically challenged creatures on humankind. The origin of the attackers is initially unclear and never explicitly revealed. The story implies, without clarification, that the antagonists are extraterrestrial, but other explanations would also work; the creatures could have been freed from a subterranean domain, perhaps, or the product of biological experimentation gone wrong. In truth, it is irrelevant to both the plot and subject matter of the film whether the monsters that populate A Quiet Place are alien or earthly. The blind but formidable creatures—a newspaper glimpsed in the film declares, “Not bullets, not bombs! Armor is impenetrable!”—are more than merely a MacGuffin, in that their nature provides the foundation of several critical plot points, but from whence they came does not matter at all when juxtaposed with the simple fact that they are on the verge of rendering humanity extinct.
A Quiet Place begins and ends as a tale of survival. The dramatic beats, perhaps not surprisingly, fall within the traditional range of horror fare, but the film grounds itself with more mainstream themes. Its core storytelling focuses on issues of familial love and responsibility, of fear and grief, of guilt and resolve. John Krasinski, who helms the project from a script he co-wrote, stars as the husband of co-star (and real-life spouse) Emily Blunt. The on-screen couple have three children: two sons, aged approximately four and twelve, and a daughter, about ten or so. Because the film contains little dialogue, the characters largely go unnamed—their home mailbox identifies them as the Abbotts—but their relationships are clear, and made all the more apparent given the adversity they face.
The family resides in rural America. The nation—and, beyond it, the world—has been devastated by the predatory creatures, who continue to roam the countryside. The opening scenes play out in and around the small town near the Abbotts’ farm. There are no signs of recent habitation, and there appear to be no other local survivors. In an abandoned, plundered storefront, the family of five forages in silence for supplies, establishing the setting, the situation, the characters, their relationships and priorities. Before the day is out, they will encounter one of the creatures in a way that concretizes the Abbotts’ ongoing struggles—of the father to protect his family, of the mother to keep them tethered to each other, of the children to find some measure of happiness in brutal circumstances.
The choice to join the story in media res works. It serves to immerse the audience in the setting and tone of the film at once, rather than requiring the audience to sit through the mechanics of an alien invasion—or some other instigating event—before arriving at the meat of the tale. At the same time, what transpires in the opening moments of A Quiet Place subverts expectations for a work in this genre. It promises a more vivid threat to the characters, one that pays off later in dramatic and unexpected fashion.
Mr. Krasinski and Ms. Blunt are rock solid in their roles, sharing a knowing familiarity with each other that may well reflect their offscreen marriage. They also display a rapport with the Abbott children, portrayed ably by Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, and Cade Woodward. In particular, young Ms. Simmonds shines, imbuing her character with a distinct point of view, understandable feelings of sadness and dissociation, and youthful intellect and strength.
But the real star of A Quiet Place can be found among neither its cast of characters nor the terrifying creatures against which they must do battle. What sets it apart—not just from other horror features, but from films in general—is its encompassing silence. Although the soundtrack does offer background music at some points, there are long stretches where the audience hears only ambient noise—which, as indicated, includes almost no dialogue, whispered or otherwise. The result feels eerie and oppressive, lending the production a weighty tension that evokes a comparison to the works of masterful director Alfred Hitchcock.
Overall, though, while A Quiet Place has much to recommend it, the film does not quite achieve anything more than the sum of its parts. A good script—co-written by Mr. Kasinski with Bryan Woods & Scott Beck—careful direction, and fine performances are buoyed by an intense mood, a couple of surprising plot developments, and a satisfying conclusion, but several issues with the plot detract from the film as a whole. Millicent Simmonds, herself hearing-impaired, plays the young Abbott daughter with the same physical condition. The character wears a cochlear implant that occasionally causes her pain through piercing feedback, but her reactions in those moments are less than realistic (a fault not of the actor, but of the screenplay). The birth of a baby that barely cries may be explicable in terms of its medical condition—though the film offers only the mother’s severe blood loss as a possible explanation—but it feels more like a convenient plot device than something reasonable. The ultrasensitive hearing of the antagonists also seems inconsistent; the family must paint sections of the hardwood flooring in their house to ensure they do not step on boards that creak, but the creatures cannot hear the rustle of clothing, or human heartbeats, or breathing—sometimes heavy breathing after characters exert themselves?
More than anything else, the premise of A Quiet Place succeeds only so far, failing to completely fulfill its promise. The notion of a deadly predator that lacks the ability to see, that instead relies on highly developed auricular faculties to hunt its prey, makes for an intriguing concept. Under what conditions did such a species evolve? How does its natural blindness impact its way of life? These and other questions are never explored, and perhaps expecting the narrative to do so asks too much of a horror movie, but that missing ingredient prevents the film from expanding much beyond the middling expectations of its genre. A Quiet Place does make for a good film, particularly for a work of horror, and it’s worth seeing, but it’s not so good that you’ll want to shout about it.
***¼ (out of *****)
©2018 David R. George III