I’ve always found that horror functions best when it takes pains to disempower the characters the audience is meant to care about. How do you make a viewer feel scared when the protagonist is a gun-wielding badass? You could start by devising a situation that would render their weapon about as useful as a stick of chewing gum, and then find subtler ways to make them as vulnerable as possible. This is precisely what A Quiet Place promises: to strip its characters of even the most basic reaction to fear and use that conceptual nakedness to terrify audiences.
Sometime around 2019 or so, terrifying creatures began appearing across the world, and proceeded to kill multitudes of people (as tends to be the case with abrupt, unexplained monster invasions). Eventually, it came to light that these beings were completely blind, so if you could stay quiet, you could stay alive. That is one hell of a premise, and it astounds me that it’s taken until now for filmmakers to touch on the idea.
The actual narrative follows a family living in rural America, doing everything in their power to remain as silent as possible. The father spends his days gathering food, soundproofing the house, and toiling away at the apparently Sisyphean task of building a functional hearing aid for his Deaf daughter. It’s a strangely serene existence that this nuclear family has carved out for themselves, but a rapidly approaching event threatens to complicate things significantly: the impending birth of a new child.
All of this is established within the first ten minutes of the film and is done so with merciful brevity. The filmmakers understood that the origin of the monsters and the state of the world wasn’t relevant to the story at hand, so worldbuilding is primarily done through context and conveniently viewable newspaper headlines. The relief I felt at not being greeted with a wall of text or a five-minute exposition dump meant to make clear a remarkably simple concept was immense, and if I ever meet the person responsible for that decision, I will gladly buy them the drink of their choice.
There is an enormous amount in A Quiet Place that not only works but works exceptionally well. As I mentioned above, the idea that any sound could bring swift death upon you at any time is incredibly compelling, and the film puts it to good use. Delivering a baby is difficult enough, but simply the idea of needing to do so silently would make even the most pain-tolerant person on the planet clench up. Furthermore, the ever-present dread that the characters obviously feel does an effective job of keeping the audience on edge. It’s like watching an entire movie built on the tension in the velociraptor sequence from the end of Jurassic Park.
Additionally, the film is ably directed by John Krasinski, better known as Jim from The Office. In recent years, he’s begun to emerge from the shadows of his most famous role, featuring in films like 13 Hours and the Amazon show Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, but I (and I assume many others) couldn’t help but continue to see him as lovable Jim Halpert. This is absolutely not so in A Quiet Place. Krasinski brings an intensity to his character that shatters his prankish image, and reveals himself to be as adept behind the camera as he is in front of it.
Another standout, perhaps predictably, is Emily Blunt. She gives much-needed dimension to a fairly flat character, imbuing her with a quiet vulnerability and indomitable inner strength. And when it comes time for her baby to be born, she out-acts everyone else in the film by an order of magnitude. The child actors are watchable, for which I am unendingly thankful after A Wrinkle in Time, as well as recently being subjected to an episode of the truly irredeemable Young Sheldon.
On a slightly anecdotal note, A Quiet Place is unique in the sense that the viewing experience is actually made worse by the theater environment. The silent tension the film attempts to cultivate is undercut slightly when there’s a man two rows back who seems to be in severe respiratory distress, a woman talking to herself over my left shoulder, and four or five people enthusiastically consuming several gallons of popcorn. While this does not factor into the score in any way, I can’t say it made the experience more pleasurable than had I been alone with a pair of headphones and a laptop.
The downfall of A Quiet Place is that, for all of its intelligence and the quality of its presentation, there is absolutely no consistency to anything. Why are you scared of the sound of a Monopoly piece touching the board in a padded room, but sprinting on sand seems to be completely silent? Why is sand quieter to walk on than cement, especially when you’re already barefoot? Why is the sand laid out in pathways sometimes, and other times in little stepping platforms? Why can the monsters hear you cough from miles away, but can’t hear you breath five feet from their faces?
This lack of attention to detail extends to the audio design, too. There are some beautiful touches, like a more muted mix when we occupy the perspective of the Deaf girl, but more often than not A Quiet Place sounds like a generic horror movie. I was hoping for a minimalistic, sparse (or even nonexistent) soundtrack, and for diegetic scare cues. Instead, the soundtrack is the same bassy drone we’ve all become accustomed to over the last decade, and moments of silence almost always signify the approach of a jump-scare.
I had gone into this film expecting contextually justified jump-scares, and I was not disappointed. With a premise like this, there were bound to be more than a few instances where sound was used to startle the audience, but I had hoped that the unsettling tone of the world and the omnipresent threat of the monsters would be allowed to do most of the legwork. Nope. It’s mostly jump-scares all around, and much of the tension caused by the creatures fades by the finale, as they were revealed in full Signs style, and became far less unnerving. At least their design is solid, although a little flappier than perhaps necessary.
At first, I tried to ignore these mostly minor complaints, but then they began to pile up. Higher and higher this tower of illogicality rose until I realized that it had nearly obstructed my view of the film. I tried to remind myself of the clever concept and the slick direction. I tried to fear the monsters again, and I very nearly succeeded. Then the final twenty minutes began.
Every single thing that happens during this interval is either a stale horror trope or motivated by a child doing something so unimaginably stupid that both my head and hand hurt from the force and frequency of my face-palming. I sincerely could not have dreamed up the idiotic things these kids were doing, and I will never understand how they could exist in the same movie as most of the first two-thirds. Even considering the film’s merits, the ending comes close to derailing the whole thing.
A Quiet Place is not a bad movie, just a cripplingly inconsistent one. The originality of its premise and the strength of its presentation ultimately overcome its lack of attention to detail and lobotomized ending, but only just. If there’s one way in which the film succeeds, it’s to legitimize John Krasinski as both an actor and a talented filmmaker in his own right, beyond the legacy of Jim from The Office.
Far from a masterpiece, A Quiet Place offers up enough scares and originality to garner a general recommendation, but not an enthusiastic one. Had they tightened up the conclusion and paid more attention to the rules of the world, it could have been a modern horror classic. Instead, I’ll remember it as a mostly pleasant diversion.
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