Early in A Quiet Place, the four unnamed members of an unnamed family clasp hands around the supper table and close their eyes for a silent family grace before meals. Such an unremarkable daily gesture of domestic togetherness and piety might be likelier to crop up, ironically, in a post-apocalyptic horror movie than in any other Hollywood genre.
There is something about living from hour to hour for weeks and years in constant peril of vicious predatory monsters roaming the earth that makes one alive to the gift of a meal with loved ones. There is something, too, about the humdrum ritual of giving thanks for daily bread that weaves together yesterday, today and tomorrow with threads of hope and trust, keeping alive the ordinary and at least momentarily banishing the monsters.
It’s not just the grace before meals. Mom and Dad — per the end credits, Evelyn and Lee Abbott, played by real-life husband and wife Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, who also directs — have an easy emotional intimacy and awareness of one another that would be moving and enviable in any screen couple. Their slow dance to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon — sharing earbuds because the blind monsters track their prey by sound, so any significant noise is potentially deadly — is the most tender screen dance in ages.
Evelyn and Lee are archetypal parents, nurturing and self-sacrificing. Evelyn, carrying their fourth child for much of the movie, home schools Marcus (Noah Jupe, about 12) in math and English, along with doing the cooking and cleaning, though she can handle the family’s lone shotgun as well as Lee.
Bearded Lee tinkers with the elaborate surveillance system with which he has tricked out their remote farmhouse compound and takes Marcus on father-son hunting-gathering expeditions, training him to assume, if necessary, Lee’s role as chief provider and protector.
There isn’t much concern about traditional gender roles in their relationship, and the considerable masculinity on display is anything but toxic. A couple of years ago, in a pair of essays on problems around the negativity of religious representation in Hollywood movies, I noted that positive depictions of Catholic faith and identity in major Hollywood films in recent years tend to be almost exclusively in a particular sort of horror film. Perhaps a good husband and father, like a good priest, is nowhere likelier than in a horror movie of another sort.
On the other hand, their eldest, Regan (Millicent Simmonds, about 14), resents that Marcus is always the one to accompany Lee on his trips — and Marcus would be happy to let his older sister go in his place. But Lee wants Regan to stay home and help Evelyn in his absence.
This is perhaps only partly because Marcus is the oldest boy. It may also be because Regan is profoundly deaf, and Lee’s attempts to jerry-rig a cochlear implant that will help her have not yet been successful. Regan fears, too, that there is another reason: She worries that her father blames her, as she blames herself, for a tragedy that is like a wound that won’t heal.
Centrally, A Quiet Place offers an empathic portrayal of disability, namely deafness — the one disability that would seem most dangerous given the premise, but which turns out to hold a key to survival. For one thing, the family members were already fluent in American Sign Language when the monsters arrived. (Simmonds, excellent in Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck last year, is really deaf, and she coached her fellow cast members in ASL.)
Silence is an effective device in a filmmaker’s arsenal, but few films rely on it quite so extensively — or on the shattering power of even a quiet noise at the wrong moment. A Quiet Place contains almost no spoken dialogue, though characters occasionally permit themselves bare whispers and, on the rarest of occasions, even shouts.
An especially sharp touch in the film’s sound design is the pitching of key moments to Regan’s auditory point of view, depriving the viewer of the sonic cues she doesn’t have. Almost as unsettling are moments in which we hear what the sharp-eared monsters hear.
The Abbotts are survivors, even by necessity survivalists, and they have built a life for themselves that excludes all but the quietest sounds. (The family go barefoot as much as possible, and the creak-free floorboards have been painted so that even Regan can navigate soundlessly. In one scene, Regan and Marcus play Monopoly, rolling the dice onto cloth and using soft objects as makeshift pieces.)
Still, accidents happen, and the movie builds up the defenses around the Abbotts in the first half so we can watch them crack and crumble in the second half. Sooner or later, of course, there will be a childbirth scene, and babies cry. (Notably, there is no ambivalence about Evelyn’s pregnancy; even in this post-apocalyptic landscape, life is an absolute good.)
Perhaps the film’s most dreadfully effective moment involves an utterly mundane household danger — one that would make viewers squirm and wince in any movie but that is especially terrible in a movie in which the one thing one must never do is scream.
Monsters and even fear can potentially be kept at bay. More insidious are grief and guilt.
Regan isn’t the only one who blames herself for the family’s great sorrow, and both Evelyn and Lee live with the parental imperative to protect their children at all costs, which, of course, isn’t entirely possible. “Who are we if we can’t protect them?” an anguished Evelyn asks in what should be a moment of joy.
One of the film’s key assets is its minimalism. The story begins in medias res, on “Day 89,” with no invasion sequence and little back story. In the time-honored tradition of Jaws and Aliens, the monsters are kept offscreen for as long as possible.
The filmmakers occasionally succumb to the temptation to do more, to the film’s detriment. Marco Beltrami’s creepy score is at its best when it goes subtle and unnerving; too often it seems like a score for a louder horror movie.
Some of the information conveyed via news clippings and Lee’s whiteboard is overkill; the movie tries to make a mystery of something that should have been obvious. (I had barely described the film’s premise to my 11-year-old when he proposed what is meant to come as a third-act revelation.)
What finally sells the film are the performances — all of them.
Blunt, so steely in another smartly made high-concept alien-invasion movie, Edge of Tomorrow, makes Evelyn’s maternal devotion no less formidable than her earlier character’s military edge. Krasinski, best known from The Office, wears the survivalist family-man role so naturally I can scarcely imagine another current actor improving on the performance. (A friend recently commented that it is hard to imagine many young male actors today persuasively playing competent fathers; Krasinski is clearly one who can.)
Both children are excellent, but it’s Simmonds, in perhaps the pivotal role, who especially shines in a performance evoking all the overwhelming emotional complexity of adolescence, whether or not there are predatory monsters about. While A Quiet Place is a terrific film just the way it is, I can’t help wishing there were more families like this in other kinds of movies.
There are day-to-day crises and traumas that are somehow absorbed into the continuity of our lives, and then there are inexorable turning points that divide our lives into “before” and “after.”
It’s funny to think of people scratching their heads when this “quiet” film is justly nominated for sound editing and sound mixing Oscars.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.