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A Quiet Place blends horror and drama in a silent world

March 11,2018 21:19

The filmmakers mostly don't artificially amplify or silence the world, but characters are so quiet that any sound of ordinary volume becomes a jump scare. The family communicates with sign language, and they've rearranged every part of their ...and more »

After the premiere of A Quiet Place at SXSW, the film’s director, John Krasinski, explained that he picked up the script after a simple pitch: “What if it’s a family, and they can’t make noise, and you have to figure out why?” This explanation goes a long way toward illustrating A Quiet Place’s goals. The film hits all the necessary beats for a straightforward horror film in an eerie post-apocalyptic setting. But it’s more effective as a portrait of four people who have constructed a deceptively peaceful life under the constant, inescapable threat of death.
A Quiet Place is open about its premise, but sparing with the details. In the very near future, a species of large, seemingly unkillable spider-like monsters appears and wipes out most of humanity. While the creatures are blind, their hearing is so keen that a shattering plate, the thump of boots, or any speech above a whisper could draw them. A few humans survive, including a nameless couple played by Krasinski and Emily Blunt (who are married in real life). The pair retreat to a farmhouse with their son (Noah Jupe) and daughter (Millicent Simmonds), and when they conceive another child, they begin making elaborate preparations for the nigh-impossible task of raising the baby.

Any noise of ordinary volume feels like a jump scare
The filmmakers mostly don’t artificially amplify or silence the world, but characters are so quiet that any sound of ordinary volume becomes a jump scare. The family communicates with sign language, and they’ve rearranged every part of their environment to reduce noise. Footpaths are covered in sand and traversed barefoot. Plates are replaced by leaves of lettuce. Metal and plastic Monopoly tokens are swapped with felt cutouts and fuzzy balls. Hanging over all of it, they’re bearing the guilt of a single devastating failure: the death of the family’s second son, who was taken after turning on a loud toy in the forest.
Plenty of films, from 1960s and ’70s “after the bomb” dramas to their modern zombie-pandemic counterparts, have explored the day-to-day drudgery of living after the apocalypse. But A Quiet Place feels genuinely different. It’s not, as so many of these films are, about the notion of carving out a safe space in a dangerous world. Food is plentiful, electricity is available, and the only other humans who appear seem non-violent. But no fortified bunker, the film implies, could possibly stand up against the monsters. They’re a mostly unseen yet utterly unstoppable threat, with crab-like claws capable of shearing through metal and crushing cement.
Watching the family find ingenious ways to deal with that threat is both A Quiet Place’s strongest element, and its saddest. The filmmakers smartly set the story more than a year after the original disaster, and wrote characters who survive not by luck or power, but by wits and preparation. Instead of fumbling through discoveries that savvy audiences have already made, the protagonists are usually one step ahead of the monsters — even if it’s a vanishingly small step.

‘A Quiet Place’ feels different from other post-apocalyptic survival dramas
But it’s also clear how exhausting and impoverishing this hyper-vigilance has become — especially for children who are old enough to remember life before the disaster, but young enough to be warped by the constant sense of dread. The razor-toothed, spindle-legged interlopers are frightening, but it’s almost creepier to watch Blunt and Krasinski’s characters calmly prepare to muffle the first cries of their newborn child. Being able to perfectly predict the monsters’ behavior also makes failure seem unforgivable. Simmonds’ character, who is deaf, feels particularly responsible for her brother’s death: she gave him the toy, and didn’t realize he was in danger until it was too late. It creates a rift with her father that’s played subtly but effectively, thanks to strong — and almost completely non-spoken — performances from the tiny cast.
The idea of post-apocalyptic survivors learning to live with some strange artificial restriction evokes the novel Bird Box, where an invasion of eldritch creatures forces people to either navigate the world blind, or risk going mad if they happen to see one of the things. (Susanne Bier’s film adaptation of Bird Box is actually slated for later in 2018.) But while Bird Box emphasizes the horror of the unknown, A Quiet Place is about characters trying to maintain human connections while diminishing their place in the world as much as possible, policing their every breath to avoid disaster. The film doesn’t spend much time on allegory or symbolism, but it’s not hard to find a larger metaphor about living under any oppressive force.

A feature-length adaptation of that horror scene where a character hides in a closet and tries not to scream
A Quiet Place follows a relatively predictable horror arc, and it relies on familiar tropes for its scares. (It’s arguably a feature-length extension of the stock scene where a character hides in a closet and tries not to scream.) This strategy works for most of the film, when the point is just to make the viewers as tense as the characters by any means necessary. And the filmmakers integrate hoary narrative clichés in a way that stops just short of blandness: a tackboard of helpful backstory-providing newspaper clippings, for instance, includes one distinctly contemporary “here’s what you need to know” headline.
The approach falters near the end, however, when the film jumps from foreboding to outright violence. The creatures seem virtually all-hearing and omnipotent in early scenes, but as the film progresses, they devolve into more conventional and less dangerous enemies. Early on, some obvious foreshadowing and convenient plot developments keep the story from becoming ponderous. Toward the end, they lead to neat resolutions that feel unearned. A Quiet Place seems to really want a cathartic victory for its characters, but can’t get one without undermining the larger premise. After all, this is supposed to be one family up against a force that’s destroyed civilization, and the film is better when the characters aren’t incredible, heroic exceptions.
Even though some of its parts don’t quite fit together, A Quiet Place is unique high-concept science fiction that’s grounded solidly in human drama. Some horror movies imbue a seemingly harmless place or object with newfound danger. A Quiet Place may not make audiences afraid of wearing shoes or talking — but it might make those things feel luxurious, however momentarily.
This review comes from the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. The Quiet Place is scheduled for release April 6th.

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