So many horror films are filled with noise and bombast, they don’t frighten, they irritate. “A Quiet Place” scares with its silence, making for a frightener that is utterly disquieting. The loudest sounds you will hear while watching will be your own heartbeat or breathlessness or both.
Real-life married couple Emily Blunt and John Krasinski play Evelyn and Lee, the married couple at the center of the story. They live on a farm with their three children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward). Regan was born deaf, and the rest of the family learned sign language to help her feel like less of an outsider. That comes in handy when they are forced to live in silence to avoid being attacked by extra-terrestrial invaders who hunt their prey via sound.
This is a dystopian horror film, where most of the population has been wiped out by these monsters with enhanced hearing. Those humans still are around have learned to tread very, very softly. And that’s how the movie starts, ever so quietly, with Lee and Evelyn’s family venturing into their ghost town to pick up some supplies at the abandoned local store. They walk barefoot and move almost as if in slow motion. They’re aware that any loud noise could summon the beasts and their doom.
The dusty, unkempt store still offers various items to help the family survive. From canned goods to left-over prescriptions to various distractions like toys, they scavenge what’s useful. Little Beau, all of five or six, picks out a space shuttle toy to take home to play with, but before they depart, Dad wisely removes the batteries. One button would unleash all sorts of buzzes and beeps, but unfortunately, the patriarch doesn’t take the batteries with him. So, the intrepid tot retrieves them and places them back in the toy. Then, while trudging home, the toy goes off, and the youngest is attacked and killed by an alien in the woods who hears it.
It’s a brave film that offs a small child so early in a telling. Most would start with the family pet, but it’s nice to see “A Quiet Place” avoiding such clichés. (It also avoids the cliché of having a family pet, waiting to be the first victim.) For the most part, the script written by Krasinski, along with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, works very hard at confounding expectations. It daringly puts the other kids in danger on numerous occasions without their parents around to defend them. The script also ensures that the creatures are smarter and linger longer than usual, ratcheting up the tension far greater than we expect in the attack set-pieces. And there are no new third act characters brought in to enliven the finale. The script is spare and surprising and does the genre proud.
What the writers do best throughout is add more a ton more plight to the very simple plot. It’s not enough that the family has to mourn the loss of their youngest for the rest of the film, mom gets pregnant and will soon give birth. (And babies, as you know, make a lot of noise.) Regan not only is at a disadvantage from not being able to gauge any noise she makes, but she also is suffering from an inferiority complex which will endanger everyone before the final reel. And when it comes to a big escape scene high above on a silo, these clever scripters will make sure that the farm structure is dilapidated and made of racket-inducing metal.
Most of this plays like gangbusters in its ‘movie-movie’ kind of way, but a few motifs end up being misjudged. Framed pictures hang loosely on the wall, just waiting to crash. And surprise, they do. Mom inexplicably manages to sleep through a basement flooding. And while the family is smart enough to soundproof most everything, even laying soft sand on the routes they take, they all miss a large, errant nail protruding out of a wooden step. It’s so apparent, even Daniel Stern would’ve avoided it in “Home Alone.” Such blunders seem all the more glaring because the rest of the film is so wise in sidestepping such claptrap.
The best set-piece is one that plays wholly terrifying but incredibly smart too. Mom’s water breaks when she is alone in the house, and she struggles to keep her noise under control even though she must deliver the baby on her own. All this happens while a vicious alien comes-a-calling, but Evelyn is incredibly shrewd. She outwits it, bears down and delivers the child on her own, and even manages to keep the infant from squawking like a seasick parrot. Blunt performs this silent movie pantomime brilliantly, showcasing her character’s quick thinking, even while stifling absurd pain.
Krasinski directs horror for the first time here, yet he demonstrates an understanding of the genre that few newbies have. He realizes that the fear of blood is scarier than seeing buckets of it. The director never shows the monsters in their entirety either which makes them all the more mysterious. And he takes his time to develop each of the characters in the family, so we get to know them and care about each of their fates.Best of all, the director keeps his movie modest in scope. Less is a lot more here as Kasinski keeps things controlled and primal. “A Quiet Place” doesn’t resort to unnecessary flashbacks showing how the aliens arrived and destroyed our planet. It doesn’t waste time with interfering neighbor characters brought in only to add more conflict to the story. And he never bothers explaining how the intruders live or communicate with each other. He keeps us in the dark about them, and he keeps them mostly in the dark too. Too much light would ruin the illusion. And too much talk would pander. This is a quiet, dark, and chilling film to experience.
What may be the most startling and unsettling about it all is how the filmmakers ask us to accept a movie that is so incredibly quiet. The dialogue is kept to a whispering minimum. The sound effects are dialed way down on the soundtrack. And outside of the attack scenes, there is precious little music. In fact, it’s a sign of Krasinski’s sublime discipline that he never lets composer Marco Beltrami blanket the film with an underscore. The director knows that silence can be deafening. And it speaks volumes throughout this superior horror film.