The most impressive thing about John Krasinski’s third film as a director is just how controlled everything is, which can be make or break when you’re trying to terrify your audience.
A QUIET PLACE began life as a no-budget film that Bryan Woods and Scott Beck wrote to direct themselves. They had a big hook, and they approached the script unconventionally, creating a document that emphasized the silence that is so definitely a character in the film, something that barely looked like a screenplay at all. Krasinski deserves credit for seeing just how simple their hook was, and the end result of the collaboration between all of them is a terrific, broadly entertaining movie that manages to squeeze every bit of possible suspense out of its setting.
The film’s hook is simple, and the opening scene plays out perfectly without a word. It’s day 89 of… something. A small town seems abandoned. Inside an old drugstore, a family moves around, barefoot, careful not to make any noise at all. They stock up on some things, and as they go to leave, Beau (Cade Woodward), the youngest boy, grabs a toy off the shelf. Everyone’s tense until Lee (Krasinski) takes out the batteries. As they walk home, the toy goes off, and everyone realizes the little guy put the batteries back in. Before there’s even time to react, tragedy strikes, and we jump forward by 400 days or so. It’s enormously effective as a way of getting things started, and it breaks the family deeply in the process.
Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is the oldest child, deaf since birth, and she’s the one carrying the biggest load of guilt since she’s the one who gave Beau the batteries. She meant well, but it’s an almost impossible task that she and her brother Marcus (Noah Jupe) are faced with, maintaining total silence as a way of life. Her father has made it his entire mission to soundproof their everyday existence, and they’ve had enough time to start to settle into this as more than an anomaly. Any transgression could bring total ruin down on them, and Krasinski makes sure he shows us just how fragile a peace it is. To underline the precarious nature of their existence, he shows us a few very tiny moments of sound and just how immediate and terrible the repercussions are, and then he sets the stakes very high by showing us that Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is pregnant, due any day. Obviously, one child cannot replace another, but this hope in the face of such profound heartbreak suggests that the world will continue, even in such insane circumstances.
My biggest problem with any film like this, where the central metaphor literally becomes the text of the film, is that it can be hard to believe in the particulars of the world. When there is finally a solution offered to this situation, it seems so incredibly hiding-in-plain-sight obvious that it’s sort of annoying. But the reason Krasinski connects the dots this way is for clarity. What he’s after here is an emotional ride, not a hard science-fiction film about an alien invasion. This is about what happens within a family when they stop communicating, how important it is for any family’s survival to be able to say the hard things to each other, and how vital it is that you tell people what they mean to you.
There are at least four big set pieces in this film, and they are each masterful in the way they’re constructed. Krasinski spends some time educating you on the layout of the house and the land around it, and when he finally starts paying things off, it works so much better because he’s made it clear how things are going to work. You are going to be hard-pressed to find a better premise for a suspense scene this year than Emily Blunt having to give birth while one of the creatures is actually in the house, hunting her and her family, all while she struggles to maintain near-total silence. It is fiendishly effective, and there’s an added thrill seeing it in a theater. Since everything’s played in silence, the theater becomes very quiet, unusually so, making it even more fun when someone in the audience breaks from the tension. It is a thrilling communal experience, and it brings to mind similar experiences I’ve had in a theater like Wait Until Dark or The Descent or Silence of the Lambs, where the audience simply can’t handle the expert way that their anxiety keeps getting cranked up. I love movies like this because I love that feeling, and I love sharing that feeling with a roomful of strangers. There’s no high quite like it. Krasinski understands just how long he can leave that tension unresolved, and when he does finally let the rubber band snap, he makes it sting.
One of the least interesting things about a film is its rating, and some people might judge A Quiet Place by that PG-13. Don’t. Just because this is a film without a good deal of explicit content does not mean it is soft or less scary. The film has teeth and claws, and it’s unafraid to use them. Like a fairy tale, it is willing to kill and to take us into the darkest parts of the forest. But there are rules here, and there are heroes, and there is sacrifice, and there is love, and that primal, direct, relentless drive is what Krasinski recognized in the material. It’s what Woods and Beck tapped into so nimbly with their original idea, and it’s what will keep audiences pinned to their seats in the theater.
This is Krasinski’s third film as a director, and the jump from film to film has been pretty impressive. I liked his second movie, The Hollars, and found it almost uncomfortably naked in the way it approached its very sincere emotional material. This film offers more of that, but it’s also an expertly crafted mainstream scare machine on top of that. Charlotte Bruus Christensen shot the shit out of the film, giving it a lean, muscular, aggressive sense of style. Christopher Tellefsen’s editing puts the screws to the audience, slowly but surely, and the entire sound department on the film should probably start looking for tuxedoes because they deserve some serious recognition for the remarkable work they’ve done building this world of not-quite-silence.
The monsters are perhaps too familiar in terms of design, but they work as nightmares. There’s a sameness to a lot of monster design these days, but they are perfectly executed as actual living creatures. They do feel like a real physical threat, and when the film needs to make them terrifying, it does. While I may feel like the film fumbles a bit in oversimplifying its resolution, that may be in keeping with the fairy tale feel of things. Sometimes, you just need to push the witch in the oven or chop the wolf’s head off to restore some kind of natural order, and there’s no denying that when it matters most, Krasinski makes you feel both hope and heartbreak so intensely that it feels like you might explode. A Quiet Place is a damn good film, and not only does Krasinski treat the genre with respect, but he reaps all the rewards possible as a result.
Running time: 95 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic