Krasinski has created a taught, smart horror in which no one can hear you scream if you want to live. Millicent Simmonds steals the show.
There’s great power in a film that plays several steps ahead of its audience, shocking them with very twist, but the converse can also be true. Sometimes signalling exactly what’s about to happen, then leaving us gripped in the cruel throes of inexorable panic wondering exactly when, is just as clever.
That’s the case with masterful horror A Quiet Place, directed by and starring John Krasinski alongside real life partner Emily Blunt. Also playing a married couple here, Lee and Evelyn Abbott, things are far from blissful. A stark piece of speculative fiction, it posits our world overrun by blind (possibly alien) monsters that rely on massive eardrums concealed within their heavily armoured, toothy maws to hunt humanity to almost extinction, killing anyone that betrays their position by making a loud noise.
What this means is a world thrust into silence for survival. It’s a fight that the Abbott at least had a head start in, thanks to eldest kid Regan (Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck) who is deaf, thereby arming them with sign language.
As they skulk around barefoot, tracing carefully laid paths of sand through the rustling woods between their farm and the abandoned upstate New York town where they scavenge supplies, their first loss is masterfully teased.
Youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward) fixates on a NASA rocket toy in a dusty supermarket. Fearing its booster jet sound effect, the stressed out parents force him to leave it behind, but Regan sneaks it back to him, minus the batteries, which he then pockets as they leave. We know this won’t end well, but we’re forced to wait with bated breath to see just how badly it will play out.
An already fascinating premise dreamt up by co-writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, Krasinski, star of the US version of The Office, has created a fully realised world, embracing the possibilities wholeheartedly and to terrifying effect. The sound design is spectacular, particularly as it leaps between the hush of the hearing Abbotts’ world, including middle son Marcus (Noah Jupe),and the absolute silence of Regan’s, as her father fruitlessly attempts to fix her busted cochlear implanthearing aid, all the while sending Morse code messages into the unknown, without response.
As if their situation weren’t dire enough, Evelyn also becomes pregnant. With neither birth nor a resultant baby in any way conducive to silence, the solution requires the sort of ingenious invention they’ve been forced to become adept at, but the threat of failure clearly haunts their doubting faces, just as much as it does the audience. Why would you bring a baby into this world? But then without new life, there is no hope.
That impending arrival is just one signalled strife among many, tracing from that doomed rocket to an exposed nail head, and then to possible salvation, though of course frustratingly realised by us way before the Abbots click. It’s a film packed with smart ideas, from the unbridled joy of speaking out loud when close to a much louder yet consistent noise, like running water, or a terrifying upgrade of grain silo trauma that mashes The Dressmaker with Jurassic Park.
Though the latter may not be an intended reference, it’s hard not to assume echoes of Alien3 and Psycho are deliberate as the monsters, barely glimpsed, circle ever closer to their human prey. And yet even as we are taught to predict the next maliciously teased disaster, A Quiet Place bucks against expectation, throwing several curve balls. It’s enough to make me overlook a suspiciously speedily drained environment.
Blunt and Krasinski are brilliant, conveying both the determination of loving parents to protect their children, but also the glaring doubt that that is even possible. Are they merely delaying the inevitable? But it’s Simmonds who steals the show. Krasinski reportedly insisted on casting a deaf actor, and she brings lived experience to the role as well as a charismatic pluckiness not entirely unlike Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things, with the monsters also looking uncannily like that series’ big bad.
Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen artfully plays with shadow, keeping the beasts just out of view and in darkness for the most part, but also contrasting their reign of terror with the sun-dappled beauty of the family’s surrounds, recalling Aliens kid Newt’s, “they mostly come at night, mostly.” Marco Beltrami’s sparing score makes full use of the tense spaces left by largely absent dialogue.
A rewarding addition to the recent thinking person’s horror renaissance that includes Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Julia Ducournau’s Raw, perhaps Krasinski’s greatest achievement is in figuring out, finally, how to silence a cinema. At my pubic screening, not a soul dared whisper to one another, fiddle with a phone or even eat loudly. So quiet was their shared dread, at one with the characters’, that the only culprit was the air con that would have gone unnoticed in almost any other film. Now that is something worth celebrating.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords