Imagine a world where a too-loud footfall or a scream could get you torn limb from limb. That’s the totally, deliciously terrifying world of John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place.
In his third directorial effort, Krasinski stars opposite his real-life wife Emily Blunt, as parents of three children, whom they are striving to protect in a world gone deadly quiet. Merciless, mysterious monsters lurk around the family’s farm. Subtle details tell us these beasts are voracious, and they hunt not by sight, but by sound. The script by Krasinski, Scott Beck, and Bryan Woods introduces us first to a ghost town, where the barefoot family rummages carefully through a dusty general store for supplies. In a single-file line, they walk a man-made path of sand to soften their footsteps. Over dinner, they speak in sign language. They use lettuce leaves in place of heavy plates. Even the faint thunk of game pieces on a Monopoly board is a threat; so they are replaced by felt and yarn baubles. The family lives in silence to survive. And Krasinki’s use of silence makes A Quiet Place uniquely scary.
The absence of spoken dialogue pushes Krasinski to tell a more visual story, reliant on cues like those above and on nuanced performances by Blunt, and their onscreen children, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward, and Millicent Simmonds, the charming hearing-impaired ingénue who audiences might remember from last fall’s Wonderstruck. But more than that, this silence permeated The Paramount Theater, where The Quiet Place made its world premiere at the SXSW Conference, weaponizing sound against its audience. Every noise in the sound design sparked goosebumps. Every groan or gasp in the audience made us collectively tense. My own screams felt not like a release, but dangerous. I found myself throwing both fists to my mouth in a desperate, clumsy attempt to muffle the sound. Then, Krasinski uses moments of dead-silence to lay out the special threat the family’s daughter faces.
Simmonds once more plays a hearing-impaired girl. And in a world that’s been brought to a screeching halt, her faulty hearing aid leaves her in a world of absolute silence. When a scene takes on her perspective, Krasinski cuts even the ambient sound or room tone. Its absence is automatically jarring to hearing audiences. Then, we see the creature crawl into frame towering behind the completely unaware girl. We can’t hear it. And neither can she, and so our stomachs curdle in terror. But these mysterious monsters do make a sound, a grotesque combination of shrieks and clicks that play as palpable jump scares throughout, crashing through dark nights and the family’s cozy home.
Designed by ILM, the monsters are inky, muscular, with eye-less faces that explode into ruthless teeth. They are beautiful beasts for this kind of horror. But what makes A Quiet Place really extraordinary is how Krasinki grounds the stakes in character. Like Jaws, the monster is a marvel. But why we care is because we like this family. They seem real and familiar, and so root for their survival in this seemingly impossible dystopia. With their easy intimacy that includes knowing glances and a sensual slow dance over a shared iPod headset, Krasinski and Blunt swiftly create a warm couple we care for. But it’s the kids who break your heart.
Jupe plays a boy who is understandably terrified of the world, and his fear is as contagious as it is heart-breaking. Simmonds is the braver of the older children. But her pain comes from a place every teen girl knows, a frustration with how she sees herself and how her parents see her. Her father, in particular, is overly protective because of her hearing impairment, fearing it makes her an easier target in this dangerous land. Feeling overwhelmed by these limitations of parents and fate, she wants to scream. But of course, she can’t, not without putting everyone at risk. And her silent anguished expression drives home a breathtaking thought: Imagine being a teen girl full of angst and heartache who cannot scream. That release would be a luxury the family cannot afford.
The danger of screaming becomes even more harrowing in a set piece teased in the trailer: A pregnant Blunt tries to evade the sound-sensing beasts who stride through her home on the hunt, while she’s giving birth. It’s sequences like this that make A Quiet Place a master class in suspense. The tension is so taut your stomach will turn in relentless knots. But then comes a clunky finale, which makes you go, “Oh right. Michael Bay produced this.”
For all the subtle storytelling, and poignant performances in A Quiet Place, there are some big, stupid visual cues. The wall of newspaper headlines that proclaim expositional information about the monsters is one thing. But then there’s Krasinski’s damn whiteboard. In his basement, the father researches survival solutions, like trying to fix his daughter’s hearing aid or radioing out to far-flung locations for help. And there he has a dry-erase board that literally spells out the information about the monsters the movie absolutely needs you to know. This detail shows a lack of trust in the audience. Still, one shot of it could be excused. Unfortunately, repeated shots of one particularly exasperating phrase not only dull the film’s sophisticated edge but also telegraph a major spoiler.
This second-guessing of the visual storytelling isn’t enough to ruin the thrills and chills of A Quiet Place. But as its final act leans hard into them, I couldn’t help but wish Krasinski had a little more faith in his audience or his own filmmaking. Still, this is a major step forward for the emerging filmmaker. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was an awkward adaptation of a short story collection; its lack of cinematic moments made it feel like a barely adapted play. The Hollars was sweet and earnest, but felt like pretty standard navel-gazing Sundance fare. A Quiet Place feels fiercely original, risky, and undeniably frightening and fun. It’s easily among the best of SXSW’s film slate, and a promising sign that 2018 will be a great year for horror.
A Quiet Place made its world premiere at the SXSW Conference. It will open in theaters on April 6th.