A Quiet Place
Who are we if we can't protect them? We have to protect them.
A Quiet Place is that rarest kind of horror film - legit scary and dramatically cathartic. It stakes out the kind of horror film it is early. In setup, simple and stripped-down -- a family is beset by monsters with can't see but have extraordinary hearing. Thus, any sound could set them after you. You can't ever talk, or even wear shoes for fear of the sounds of footsteps. Just in itself, this is an ingenious gimmick for a thriller, given how much suspense comes from the careful manipulation of silence and too-loud sounds.
Yet its opening scenes make it clear this isn't just a gimmick, but a thoughtful, intelligent film, carefully developing its world and characters with a minimum of words. No character speaks aloud until well into the second act, and even then, only a handful of lines are spoken. The characters do speak in American Sign Language, but even this is restrained. We don't learn about the world and characters by being told, but by being shown -- by seeing the empty streets, gleaning what we can from aged newspaper headlines, we see what a desolate place the world has become in just a short time. And we learn about the characters by watching them characters interact. How the woman meticulously takes medical pills so as to make no sound; the father takes a toy away from his younger son because it could make too much sound; how the sister removes the batteries so the boy can have the toy anyway, and playfully gives him a "shush" gesture. And we learn she's deaf through careful editing and sound mixing.
And in these details we see the last and most important kind of horror film it is: a deeply empathetic drama about real humans, dealing not only with this world, but with the long-term aftereffects of a terrible tragedy this world has wrought.
Director/star John Krasinski, known mostly from his charming comedy roles, began his Q&A at the South by Southwest premiere with the sort of goofy humor you might expect, crying out, "WHO MADE THAT?! WHY?!!?" But he revealed what ultimately attracted him to the project was not the monster stuff -- he said he was always too much of a chicken for horror -- but the characters. And that shows.
The characters do, theoretically, have names, but until the end credits, they're never referenced, and we know them essentially as the father, mother, son, and daughter. Without direct exposition, we learn all we need about their lives. The daughter is deaf, and thus their knowledge of ASL both feels non-contrived and explains how they've survived and communicated in this apocalyptic land.
The mother is pregnant; obviously, this is a terrifying world to bring a child into, but it feels less irresponsible than simply the nature of life. The man and woman love each other, and comfort each other, and will fight to bring their family through this. The daughter's guilt expresses itself largely as anger, exacerbated by angst over the son being brought reluctantly to learn the fishing traps and bond with the father -- things she would very much like to do. She feels like he blames her for the tragedy, and wants to prove herself both to him and to herself.
Millicent Simmonds, an actual young deaf actress, gives an extraordinary performance as the daughter, going through a remarkable arc while showing a youthful strength born both of grit and of hiding (and later expression) intense emotion. Noah Jupe, as her brother, is also impressive; both show immense talent and skill. Krasinski's charisma is evident even in the quiet, dead-serious mode he's necessarily in here, but his focus is understandably on a certain calm intensity. The real MVP, unsurprisingly, is Emily Blunt, though; one of the finest actresses in the world, going through immense emotional shifts, and very often terrified and inspiringly brave simultaneously; she's a grand horror heroine, as great as any in cinema.
Without saying more than a handful of words outloud, and not even using sign all that often, the script and actors bonds you completely to these characters. We understand these people -- their struggles, their love, their pain, their guilt. The dramatic arcs are as compelling as any straight drama. It's one of the most empathetic horror films I've ever seen.
And that, of course, elevates the horror tenfold. Even if the horror elements were merely adequate, that would be enough to make it a worthwhile one. But, for the most part, Krasinski delivers the goods with high style and skill. Some early sequences lean a bit heavily on the quiet being interrupted by a sudden jump-scare; one fakeout jump-scare, in particular, has an orchestral sting courtesy composer Marco Beltrami that's far too loud for its' own good... and then followed by a real jump-scare at half the volume! But both in the opening sequence and once the story really gets underway, the horror sequences build and sustain tremendous suspense. It's a remarkably intense film that is almost wall-to-wall terror for the entire last hour of its' 95-minute runtime. The actual outbursts of blood and violence are brief, but have a genuine impact. It's a rare PG-13 horror film with a higher visceral impact than most R-rated horror films.
The production values are remarkably high given its' limited $17 million budget. Of course, having only a handful of actors and locations will do that, but the sprawling main set and surrounding forest are spectacularly shot by Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Christensen and Krasinski make this a beautiful horror film, richly textured in 35mm.
The monsters themselves are spectacularly designed. They don't feel like gimmick monsters, but like actual creatures, horrifying by their unfamiliarity yet recognizably alive. It's a rare case where I honestly don't know what's CGI and what's practical; they simply look perfect. And Krasinski does a great job of holding back on them, waiting until deep in the film to give us more than brief, terrifying glimpses of them, building them through the fear built over long silences, the sounds they make, and the glimpses in the darkness.
But it's the balance of the horror with the drama and even moments of humor that make it so effective. This is a deeply human story - a powerful drama about the pain, sacrifice, love, and joy of family, of parenting and growing up alike. That balance makes it in some ways the opposite of the other excellent horror film out now, Annihilation - where that one is challenging, off-putting, and leaves you shaken and disturbed, A Quiet Place is involving, fun, and leaves you exhilarated. This is crowd-pleasing horror at its' finest; not in the sense that it's dumb or pandering, though. It's intelligent and thoughtful, gutsy enough to send its' story dark and risky places. It's more than intense enough for any horror fan, and dramatically engaging and satisfying even for those who don't love the genre.
Director: John Krasinski
Producers: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller
Writers: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski
Cast: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe
Budget: $17 million
Box Office: Not yet released.