I’ve been reading a really great book (Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film by Adam Lowenstein) about allegorical horror and its ability to address historical situations in ways that other genres find more difficult. I’ve realized that this subgenre is one that really hits my buttons with movies like Onibaba and mother! scattered around my lists of favorite films, horror and otherwise. A Quiet Place is not one of those films, at least not as far as I can tell. There’s no national trauma that this seems to be calling to mind, nor is it engaging in a conversation with other films that do so. And yet, it’s my new favorite movie of the year so far because it’s so damn good at the very basics of the horror genre (it’s scary af) and it has a thematic concern that resonates beyond the thrills on offer.
The whole movie features only six characters, each a member of their nuclear family. The mother and father (the typically excellent Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, who also directs) take care of their deaf tween daughter (deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and two younger sons, and there’s soon another child on the way. But there are also monsters stalking the Midwestern landscape, monsters who attack at the smallest noise, necessitating the title. When tragedy strikes, the family falters a little and the ties that bond get ever so slightly loose. The first half of the film shows the steps the family takes to reduce their noise output, survive, and prepare for the coming baby. The second half throws every possible permutation of things going wrong at them to see how they fare. It’s a remarkably stripped-down story that develops the characters and their situation just enough to get audiences invested while leaving plenty of room for tension and action that comes in the later half.
Krasinski hasn’t previously shown any particularly outstanding directorial skills. A Quiet Place, then, powerfully announces his abilities. He might not be a huge horror fan, but he knows how to wring as much intensity as he can out of a scenario. Using careful framing and the impeccable soundtrack, he reveals complication after complication in every scene involving the sound monsters. The tension builds as he uses deliberate camera moves to frame and reframe the characters within the well-defined space. For a movie that takes place primarily at night and with minimal dialogue (signed or spoken), every action was both easily comprehensible and thrillingly choreographed. Not since Gravity has a movie been such a rollercoaster of excitement and terror. And the creature design is wonderful. There are environmental clues that didn’t click for me immediately, as happens in so many creature features, and once I got a good look at the monsters’ anatomy I understood exactly how they work and why. A Quiet Place is a machine of a movie that is so well designed and so precise that it runs whisper quiet without the need for oil. It just works.
If A Quiet Place were just an exquisite genre exercise I’d probably still love it and maybe even have it at the top of the (relatively few) 2018 movies I’ve seen so far. But it’s more than terrifying, it also packs an emotional punch that will make it tough to dethrone. As I said earlier, there’s a tragedy at the beginning of the film that ruptures whatever the norm was for the family. This was a family that was already dealing with the sound monsters and surviving on their own, but the early event throws whatever balance there was dangerously out of whack. To the film’s credit, this disturbed peace never overwhelms the characters because humans are remarkably resilient and the need to survive surpasses the impulse towards melodrama that comes from familial strife. But it’s there, it has infected each of the relationships in the family and it has a thematic echo in the film’s monsters who seize on discord and have impenetrable armor that protects them from attack. On top of the difficulty that stems from the silence imposed upon the family by the threat noise poses to them there are communication breakdowns all over the place. The daughter blames herself for the tragedy and believes that the father does too, so she is standoffish with him and he distances himself from her. Both parents seem to have avoided speaking about what happened and the implications it has for their future and their relationship suffers for not acknowledging the sound monster in the room. In such a delicate situation these tensions lead to mildly bad decisions that have outsized consequences.
I don’t think a perfect family exists, no matter its composition, and so I think that the film’s low-key meditation on communication problems will likely work with much of its audience. It certainly did for me. Many of the problems I face with friends and family could either be solved or eased by better communication from both ends of the dialogue. Navigating murky waters with incomplete maps is difficult as it is, there’s no need to add people working at cross-purposes because we’ve left things unsaid or haven’t even thought that there was anything to say at all. A Quiet Place does have good news, though. When the bad communicative practices are broken in the film with heartfelt words or even a meaningful look, the renewed teamwork is a potent force that can be deployed to find new solutions to old problems and bring people closer together. The final shot is a family portrait that I can get behind, one that shows its members are prepared to face whatever comes next. I can’t find a fault in A Quiet Place, and I hope Krasinski keeps at least a toe in the horror pool. He’s well suited to it.