On looking vs. listening, postapocalyptic survival as a religious rite, and how A Quiet Place runs counter to the language of silents
A Quiet Place Paramount Pictures
Director: John Krasinski
Screenplay: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and John Krasinski
Starring: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe and Cade Woodward
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 30 minutes / 2.39:1
April 6, 2018
(out of four)
It's not silence but order.
That the Abbotts are not to make a sound is merely the upshot. The what but not the how. Avoiding detection of the sightless monsters with superpowered hearing who've destroyed the world is not just a simple decree but an entire way of life. How to communicate, where to walk, how to dress. A rigid structure of rules and routines.
For this family - Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (John Krasinski), and their children Regan (Wonderstruck's Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) - what their life has become in the wake of this apocalyptic event is akin to a strict religious discipline, and as such A Quiet Place emerges as a religious allegory of sorts. Each behavior is a ritual, never to be flubbed, forgotten, skipped, disobeyed, disregarded. Punishments for straying - rather than being feared or promised in some ambiguous future existence - are literal, deadly and immediate. This could apply metaphorically to really any system of violation and punishment, but the film's specific circumstances give it a big-picture existential quality; the end of civilization, the beginning of a new one.
The family knows well enough how real the consequences for mistakes can be. The film's prologue takes place a year or so before the main action but still well into humanity's silent, post-invasion stage of existence. There were three Abbott kids back then. On a trip to an abandoned (and rapidly emptying-out) general store, their youngest, Beau, gets his hands on a battery-operated space-shuttle. The kind with buttons and noises. Dad warns him that he can't have a toy that makes noise, and puts it back on the shelf; older sister, however, feels sorry for him and gives it back when Dad's not looking, not realizing Beau has snagged a couple of batteries as well. On the walk back home he pulls out the toy and innocently taps a button, the thin electronic siren blaring like a megahorn through the rural air. The heavy thump of a creature galloping through the nearby woods is simply a promise of the inevitable. A family of five becomes a family of four.
In the film's present day, Evelyn is extremely pregnant and the family has become even more disciplined in its customs and practices. Bare feet only, with paths of sand guiding where to walk. Indoors it's the same thing - squares painted on the hardwood like stepping stones, to avoid the spots where the floor creaks. The house is in the country, cushioned by woods, other homes (both occupied and abandoned) not visible but still within walking distance. Rows of lights surround their property; when the lights go red, something has gone wrong. There's a lookout spot at the top of a silo, and light signals between one property and another just in case (the only form of communication between the Abbotts and anyone else). There are other contingency plans in place as well.
They speak via sign language - lucky for them they were already ahead of that particular curve, given their daughter Regan's hearing impairment - and have well-oiled systems for cooking, cleaning, playing games, sleeping. They find ways to soundproof their lives as well as they can. Which is particularly important with a baby on the way. (They've fortified a basement for just that purpose, cushioning it against outside ears - even superpowered ones - with various protections. Sound-absorbent mattresses covering its floor and ceiling; baby-sized oxygen masks to suppress the sound of crying.) The film's orchestration of their small world keeps them all literally on the same paths; separation is the greatest peril.
The order given to these lives - the various means of safeguarding, the self-inflicted wounds, the permanent vulnerability - by what the world has become is an effectively strict mechanism for the film. It becomes, simply, a meditation on family, and that family doubles as a microcosm of humanity itself. Eve/Evelyn, close enough. That she's bringing a new kid into such a tenuous, unstable world will surely be dismissed by some as an irrational intrusion into a basic survival tale, but it's the pending birth that underscores the fragility of survival. Of any further existence at all. It's the very embodiment of survival, even progress, in the face of overwhelming odds and seemingly insurmountable threats.
There's a palliative old-fashioned quality to A Quiet Place - the kind of modest, rock-solid, non-brand thriller that major studios don't much care about anymore. The simplicity of the high concept, the A-list cast, the polished production values - all accomplished, in this case, with Blumhouse-like economics (minimal locations = modest budget). Krasinski - who directs, in addition to co-starring and co-writing - brings a refined craft to the film. His shot choices are clear and economical, and he shows impressive restraint in his handling of the creatures roaming pregnantly around the periphery of every scene, their presence implicit in each whisper and every step. This is, if nothing else, a terrific exercise in suspense, shrewdly needling our sense of anticipation and our sense of dread without ever trying to overwhelm us. It's basically Signs Lite.
Its efforts to round out the narrative beyond its most basic terms are a bit rockier. Krasinski tends to dumb things down a bit more than he needs to; there's real craftsmanship here, but he also goes out of his way to make things as easy for his audience as possible. In the family's basement - where Lee tinkers and obsesses, surrounded by screens of surveillance footage - there's a wall of news clippings, scrawled notes and scratched-out theories that explain all about the creatures' arrival, their destruction of the world, various details (questions answered and unanswered) about what they are and all the ways humanity has tried and failed to defeat them. As blatant exposition, I suppose I prefer it to the typical montage of news footage that accompanies so many movies like this, and yet it's still an example of an overplayed hand. The wall of information is both efficient and completely unnecessary. That there are giant monsters with super hearing roaming around, and everyone has to be quiet to survive, is indication enough. We can fill in the blanks. Knowing exactly when and how they got here is useless information. Being told they have no (discovered) weaknesses is implicit already. Answers the film provides later on don't hold up to any kind of scrutiny anyway; the revelations are both clever and stupid.
Now about that silence. There's been a common line of argument that A Quiet Place, in its emphasis on silence, operates like a silent film, but that's really not the case. In fact, its approach to sound is basically the opposite of how silent cinema typically works. Here, the silence functions as sound. The film is training us to listen for all the most important information, while a silent movie elevates visual cues. Every sound we hear in this case - the quiet crunch of a footstep, a sudden scream, the gentle closing of a door - is of utmost importance, whereas a silent won't offer any expectation of diegetic sound, and behaves accordingly. (There are exceptions to this, of course.) Two recent efforts that more directly evoke the language of silent cinema (albeit very differently) are Dunkirk and Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi's The Tribe.
In any case, this is not a criticism of A Quiet Place but just a more general point regarding a common misunderstanding of its cinematic grammar. It's a solid enough movie as it is without having to be held up or described as something it's not.
Krasinski has had such a peculiar directorial career. Nearly a decade back, he chose a rather audacious way to make his feature debut, an adaptation of David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - a film largely made up of vignettes and ostensible monologues. It was pretty strongly disliked. (For the record: I liked it, and was impressed with its ambition and with the confidence of its imperfections.)
Then: If I didn't know any better, I'd assume he was straight-up trolling with his directorial follow-up, 2016's The Hollars - it premiered, like Brief Interviews, at Sundance - which was such a crassly uninspired assemblage of overused indie-dramedy cliches that it could almost be mistaken for a Zucker Brothers parody of Sundance movies. I found myself hoping that Krasinski had made it out of a venomous sense of spite. The Sundance crowd didn't like my confidently idiosyncratic, largely inaccessible debut? Fine, eff it - I'll give them 90 minutes of cheap Sundance catnip. They'll probably eat this shit up.
Now, he's split the difference between the ambition of his first feature and the absence of ambition in his second. If A Quiet Place is any indication, and he settles in as a genre craftsman with an affinity for grounded human drama and low-key thrills, it will all have been worth it. Even sitting through The Hollars. We need more original movies like this one.