A Quiet Place movie review: hushed horror

MaryAnn’s quick take: An apocalypse unlike any onscreen before. A film often almost unbearably tense, in part because it audaciously reconsiders the role sound plays in eliciting our emotional response.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Emily Blunt and John Krasinski
I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of most horror films
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Welcome to a whole new apocalypse.

I mean this: Humanity has been contemplating its own end since before we could even pull it off ourselves (like with nuclear weapons or genetically engineered viruses, or whatever). But we have never conceived of it looking — or, ahem, sounding — anything like this before. Science fiction is a genre in which the visual media — TV and film, and videogames, too — are always playing catchup with the literature. But the end of the world as dreamt up, nightmared up, by A Quiet Place is, as far as I’m aware, something that SF novelists had not yet stumbled upon. [ETA 04.23.19: I was wrong! See my review of Netflix’s The Silence.] Probably because this is one apocalypse that would only work effectively onscreen.

Science fiction films are always playing catchup with the literature. But A Quiet Place’s end of the world is something that SF novelists had not yet stumbled upon.

And that’s really ironic because it seems at first as if the movie has tossed out one of the things that, since the late 1920s, we have come to consider essential to cinema: sound. What is happening here is that humanity is being hunted by hideous monsters who are blind but have incredibly sensitive hearing. As we meet the family of survivors A Quiet Place is centered around, they are scavenging a shop in a small upstate New York town that appears entirely depopulated. Mom (Emily Blunt: The Girl on the Train, The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Dad (John Krasinski: Detroit, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi) and kids — a girl around 12 (Millicent Simmonds), a boy maybe 8 or 9 (Noah Jupe: Wonder), and a tyke barely out of toddlerhood (Cade Woodward) — are all barefoot, the better to muffle their footfalls. They communicate only through sign language. (We never learn their names, because they never have any need to sign them. The end credits finally clue us in.) They have to be careful not to drop anything that might clatter and bang. Later, we see that their farmstead house and surroundings have been soundproofed as much as possible: painted markings on the wooden floors to show where it’s safe to step without creaking; paths through the fields and between house and barn marked out in sand to prevent crunching of leaves and twigs; a Monopoly board with felt playing pieces; dinner served on cloth, not on dishes that might clank.

«Oh my god, the cobwebs in this bathroom are terrifying...»
«Oh my god, the cobwebs in this bathroom are terrifying…»

It’s impossible to overstate how remarkable this is, what an audacious choice for Krasinski, who also directs, to have made. (He wrote the screenplay with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck.) What is a horror movie — for that is what this is — without screaming? What, they can’t use guns to fight the monsters? (It’s a farm; of course they will have guns, except they’re now completely useless.) And then comes an unexpected noise, but what we’d consider a completely ordinary one, and it is bone-chilling startling, a horror in itself. Will it draw the monsters? Any sound outside surely means that it has. Instead of sound having to be amplified to be scary, any sound here has the power to cut right through you. The stillness and calm of the life of this family only magnifies their terror. Instead of eschewing cinematic sound, A Quiet Place utilizes it in a way entirely unlike any movie I’ve ever seen (or heard!) before.

(One perhaps unforeseen horror of A Quiet Place? It highlights the deficiencies of modern multiplexes. We’ve all had the experience of some particularly loud action sequence bleeding in from the screen next door, but with this movie, even soft soundtracks from the next screen over have the potential to ruin the aural experience of this film.)

A Quiet Place keeps its monsters secret and hidden for a very long time, which is far more tantalizingly horrible than if it kept showing them off.

There isn’t a single aspect of this movie that isn’t brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed. It opens on “Day 89” of the end of the world, skipping past the part of the story that we will have seen too many times before to have been surprised by it yet again: it will have been all rampaging monsters and, yes, people screaming and the usual disaster junk, and we didn’t need to see that. And then it jumps to “Day 472,” truly in the thick of what will be unique and fresh extrapolations of its already inventive scenario. As I have said many times before, far too many movies that venture into science fiction or fantasy speculation end before they even begin to explore the real ramifications of those speculations. That cannot be said about this movie.

Krasinski keeps the creatures secret and hidden for a very long time, which is far more tantalizingly horrible than if he kept showing them off. We never have any idea what the monsters are, and neither do the family onscreen, it seems, though their shock and panic at even the thought of them is utterly contagious. Probably anyone who actually gets close to them dies before they can tell of them. And it seems the collapse of civilization occurred so quickly that possibly no one was able to learn much about them. “Aliens,” the headline on one old newspaper the family had collected suggests, but who knows? Chillingly, on that Day 89 expedition to town, the headline on a yellowed pile of copies of the New York Post screams “IT’S SOUND!” The end of the world, as reported by, most likely, the last editions of the newspapers ever.

«Dad, I hate the Tom Sawyer game already. Can’t we play something else?»
«Dad, I hate the Tom Sawyer game already. Can’t we play something else?»

Not only is the how and why of this apocalypse unlike anything we’ve cinematically experienced before, so is the gentleness and even homeyness with which it plays out. It’s hardly a “nice” end of the world, obviously, but humanity has been literally unable to descend into a Mad Max–style every-man-for-himself dystopia: that would be too noisy. Even something that would be considered a detriment in other apocalypses is a benefit here, a contributor toward survival instead of the opposite: the daughter of the family is deaf (as actress Simmonds actually is), which is probably why they all know the sign language that has given them an edge over other people who may not have been able to communicate with one another as effectively. (Disability is literally ability here. Maybe even a superpower.) This is a movie about the absolute essentialness of working together to survive, of the bonds of family as life-giving. It’s difficult even to argue much when you can’t shout at one another. Sure, the daughter is getting moody with approaching adolescence, and they’re all struggling with the obvious grief of their situation, of humanity’s situation. But there are hints of other survivors: signal bonfires light up the landscape around this family’s farm in the evenings, a silent “hello, we’re still here” from afar. All hope has not yet been lost.

On the other hand, Kraskinski finds unexpected dread in that hope, too: By Day 472, Mom is quite heavily pregnant. How is she going to give birth without making any noise? How are they going to stop a newborn from wailing out loud constantly? How many new challenges does survival demand?

A Quiet Place is often an almost unbearably tense film. It is frequently excruciating in its terror. I am only very rarely able to say that about movies that are meant to frighten us. This one scared the hell out of me. That is so wonderfully refreshing.

see also:
A Quiet Place: Part II movie review: this one goes to 11

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap