John Krasinski’s first film as a director is an eerie survivalist drama, set in a near future in which the arrival of some predatory species has almost decimated the human race. While we don’t ever find anything out about how this species came to earth, or how they ravaged its towns and cities, we don’t really need to, since the first half of the film paints such an absorbing and gripping world that any questions about its origins fade away into the background. What is clear is that this species, which resembles a kind of giant arachnid, is totally blind, but compensates with a heightened auditory capacity, attacking and killing anyone who makes even the slightest sound. What ensues, then, is effectively a silent film, as we follow one family living on the outskirts of what used to be a small Midwestern town (or so it seems), who are simply trying to get by and maintain their family life despite the presence of several of these species in the area. At the head of the family is Lee Abbott, played by Krasinski himself – and he is very much the head of the family, as I’ll discuss in a moment – followed by his wife Evelyn, played by Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s wife in real life. At the beginning of the film, they have three children – Beau (Cade Woodward), Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) – but a brief prologue depicts one of the creatures taking Beau after he makes an inadvertent noise, which is presumably why Lee and Evelyn have decided to get pregnant again when the story starts a couple years later.
As might be expected, that makes for quite an extraordinary horror premise, one in which the silence of the cinema itself becomes as much a part of the uncanniness as the events on the screen. Even silent films – or present days silent films, such as The Artist – drowned out much of their silence with a musical score, but long passages play out in A Quiet Place with virtually no sound at all. At the same time, Krasinski finds ways to introduce just enough sound to keep the silence palpable and oppressive too – and to prevent it growing monotonous – whether through the iPod earbuds that the family occasionally use to immerse themselves in music, their discovery that they can talk at a low volume near large and stable sources of noise (such as rivers and waterfalls), or through the small, accidental noises that exist just close enough to the threshold of wider audibility to threaten to draw in the creatures. For the first half of the film, we simply follow the family through the routines that they have used to erase all incidental noises and remain alive, as they move between their house and the town on paths of sand that they have set down to muffle noise, and find ways to reimagine leisure – such as a silent game of Monopoly – in a world devoid of sound.
Throughout these sequence, Krasinski reinvents or reimagines many of the tropes of horror – and survivalist horror in particular – in quite a remarkable way. For one thing, any inclination towards a more gung-ho brand of survivalism is immediately offset by this pervasive silence, which imbues even the most frantic moments with a more contemplative and reflective quality. For another thing, A Quiet Place really makes you realise the extent to which we process fear visually, rather than sonically, as the family have to learn to hide from the creatures sonically, rather than visually, often remaining in plain “sight” whenever they come near, while maintaining absolute silence as they do so. It’s at those moments that the most enduring part of the film comes into focus, as Krasinski effectively paints a series of horror tableaux in which it is paramount that the participants don’t exclaim, shout, scream or make a noise of any kind, and in which the horror stems from precisely that inability. In doing so, he clarifies the extent to which sound – even the sound of trauma – plays a cathartic role in horror scenarios, and is in some sense the final spectacle and destination of horror scenarios, as the family perpetually have to steel themselves for situations in which they are not even permitted the brief reprise of a momentary outburst.
Among other things, that means that the suspense of A Quiet Place never really lets off, since the downtime that contours suspense in other films isn’t available in a world in which it is silent all the time, and in which silence itself is a source of sentient fear. Nowhere is that clearer than in the character of Regan, who is deaf without the use of a hearing aid, and whose hearing aid broke down years ago, leading her father to spend night after night trying to fix her a new one. Abstracting all sound from your everyday world is hard enough, but abstracting sound when you can’t immediately discern the distinction between sound and silence is harder still, so it’s no surprise that many of the film’s best scenes revolve around Regan’s various strategies to achieve that. No surprise, either, that she turns out to be the member of the family most suited to combat the creatures on their own terms, nor that Simmonds herself, who is also deaf, played a critical role on set in terms of ensuring that the cast were able to speak sign language as proficiently as they do, or to negotiate silence as eloquently as they are required to do in order for the film to feel naturalistic and immersive.
For all those reasons, then, the first half of A Quiet Place was one of the most striking and compelling horror scenarios I’ve seen in a long time. Unfortunately, the cracks start to show when it comes to actual dialogue, which occurs more frequently throughout the film, as the family find ever more ingenious ways to communicate with each other. For the most part, these fragments of speech are quite corny in their recourse to family values sentiments (“Who are we if we can’t protect them?”), generally centering on Lee’s role as head of the household, and emphasising the frontier, pastoral angle in ways that feel quite old-fashioned. Even his name – Lee Abbott – feels like something out of a midcentury American western, as Krasinski fuses the roles of father, husband and auteur into a performance that becomes more forced and self-important as it proceeds. While many critics have noted that there are quite a few plot holes in the film, it gradually feels as if the very premise of telling this story through a nuclear family is itself the biggest implausibility of them all, begging the question of why this family, in particular, has managed to survive, as well as why they haven’t managed to make more contact with other communities or outposts in the vicinity.
Of course, you could say that having a deaf child in their own family has made them more attuned to strategies for negotiating silence, and the film does certainly gesture in that direction. Similarly, there have been compelling films in the past about nuclear families placed in survivalist situations. Nevertheless, there’s something about the hermetic focus on this nuclear family that perhaps suggests how much the nuclear family, as a supposedly universal mode of representation, has waned in recent years, as the very idea of nuclear familial continuity – especially the couple’s inexplicable decision to introduce childbirth and a crying baby to a silent world – starts to feel somewhat preposterous in itself. As a result, the focus on the family ends up stifling the latter part of the film, which really feels as if it needs some expansion of the universe – another community, another individual, another horizon – but in fact just doubles down on the solemnity, sanctity and sanctimoniousness of Lee’s role as head of the household. It’s notable that the only other person they do meet – an old man in the woods – is killed by the creatures right away, and turns into a cautionary tale for Lee to pass on to his son, who he has taken out to show him how to become a man.
Similarly, it’s not surprising that the last act of the film sees the family separated from each other as the creatures attack the farm, with each member making their own trajectory while wondering if the others are OK. During this sequence, it feels as if Krasinski is trying to expand the world beyond the farm and family while remaining within the farm and family itself, as the space of the farm seems to expand far beyond the coordinates we have glimpsed so far, and the family almost break out into a series of individual agents. Almost, but not entirely, however, since it’s all brought together with a heroic act of self-sacrifice from Lee that’s framed and delivered in a fairly narcissistic and hammy way by Krasinski, both as actor and director. It’s at this moment that you realise how actively the auteurist-father angle works against the world-building of the opening act – it’s world-destroying – and sure enough the film doesn’t have anywhere to go after this, ending on a ridiculously gung-ho, balls-to-the-wall note that’s completely antithetical to the contemplative originality of its opening scenes. While it may initially, be a masterpiece of world-building, A Quiet Place turns out to be a surprisingly conservative horror film, both aesthetically and ideologically, and here’s hoping that Krasinski’s next directorial effort is less invested in his role as director, and more focused on his considerable talent with atmospherics and tone.