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Non-Review Review: A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place is the latest entry in a string of contemporary high-concept postmodern horrors, very much of a piece with films like It Follows, Don’t Breathe or Lights Out.

These movies are largely predicated upon the internal logic of the horror movie, often incorporating and literalising fundamental parts of the horror movie experience into their conceptual frameworks. It Follows is obsessed with the rules that govern its unstoppable supernatural force, with the teen protagonists seeking to exploit and manipulate them. Lights Out focuses on a creature that can only really move when it is unseen, weaponising the audience’s impulse to look away or cover their eyes when presented with horrific images within the film.

Maize runners.

A Quiet Place builds on the same horror movie anxiety as Don’t Breath – the audience’s urge to gasp or to scream in response to the events on the screen. A Quiet Place unfolds in a world dominated by monsters that hunt based on sound, creating an environment where the human cast members have to remain as quiet as possible in order to survive. No matter what happens, the characters cannot scream. Given that they are starring in a horror movie, that is quite the challenge.

A Quiet Place is a lean and effective piece of filmmaking from director John Krasinski, who also worked on the script written by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. As one might expect given the premise, A Quiet Place is a horror movie that often feels quite minimalist; twenty minutes of set-up giving way to seventy minutes of sustained climax. The results are invigourating, a horror movie worth shouting about.

Children should be seen and not heard.

The structure of A Quiet Place is almost elegant in its design. The concept driving the film ensures that exposition is kept to a minimum. There is no room for extraneous dialogue. In order to preserve the silence, characters communicate with subtitled sign language. However, the mechanics of sign language coupled with the demands of a horror film mean that such interactions are functional and efficient. There are no monologues in A Quiet Place, and a minimum amount of exposition.

What A Quiet Place needs to communicate to the audience, it does so through a combination of this sign language dialogue and visual storytelling, leaving little room for embellishment or elaboration. Character relationships are articulated through sparse exchanges. Details are communicated through lingering camera movements; when the film wishes to communicate that its female lead is pregnant, the camera pans across her stomach and shows the toys that she is constructing.

Mister Sandman…

In keeping with the idea that A Quiet Place is effectively a silent film, Krasinski and his cast pitch their performances in that vein. Both John Krasinski and Emily Blunt allow their performances to be expressive and a little exaggerated, communicating without recourse to language. Krasinski is particularly suited to this sort of storytelling as an actor. His eyes are expressive, his body language controlled, his face communicative even buried beneath a bushy beard. Krasinski sells his character’s emotions with saucer eyes and arched eye brows, so tightly wound he might explode.

There is a minimal amount of clutter in A Quiet Place, a welcome reprieve from modern cinema’s fixation on world-building and over-explanation. A Quiet Place never really explains the monsters that drive the plot, beyond their basic hook. The film never allows the characters to theorise on where the monsters came from or what they want. There is no back story here, no sequel hook. These creatures might be aliens, they might be demons; all that matters is that they are monsters. Front page headlines and newspaper scraps provide as much context as the movie offers.

Hush-a-bye baby…

This is very much in keeping with how A Quiet Place operates. It is a film that was clearly written and directed by somebody who loves horror films and understands their conventions, but who also has little patience for fat or delay. A Quiet Place is uncluttered and unfussy. It spends its opening twenty minutes establishing the rules that govern its world, and then throttles right up into an extended climax that is a sequence of taut set pieces strung together.

Krasinski is very meticulous in his work, with everything in A Quiet Place feeling very carefully positioned. The film is full of teasing set-ups designed to pay-off later down the line. More than that, the film is shrewd enough to understand that the audience understands such cause-and-effect plotting. The camera is almost teasing in the way that it delivers set-ups for eventual pay-off; Chekov’s pregnant wife, Chekov’s hearing aid, Chekov’s pointy nail.

Pregnant pause.

(Indeed, Krasinski so carefully sets up some of his set pieces that the audience would be forgiven for wondering when they are coming back into play. Perhaps Krasinski is too canny and too overt in his desire to build tension and play fair with the audience; one promised set-up pays off remarkably early in the story, but is so firmly established in early sequences that the audience almost expects for the set-up to be employed again towards the climax.)

Krasinski clearly has a deep appreciation of the genre, and relishes the opportunity to construct what is in effect a silent horror film. In particular, Krasinski is very good at using depth of focus to unsettle the audience, allowing threats and menaces to hide in the blurred spaces behind the characters or in the background. Krasinski cannily keeps his monsters obscured for most of the film, allowing the characters to linger on the destruction wrought by their aggressors’ passage.

Red lights at night, a monster’s delight.

As one might expect, given the film’s premise, the sound design on A Quiet Place is impressive. With the primary cast mute for much of the film, the surrounding environment seems to fill the empty space. The audience is always aware of the ambient sounds of the environment; the wind rustling in the trees, the creaking of old houses, the sound of ground underfoot. Particularly impressive is the manner in which A Quiet Place draws the audience’s attention to this ambience without drowning them in it; when a loud sound happens, the audience still jumps.

There is something very clean and very efficient here, a narrative constructed with a minimum of fuss. Indeed, A Quiet Place is so dedicated to the idea of being an effectively constructed horror film that it occasionally seems like there is no room for any of the social commentary or subtext that audiences have come to expect from truly great horror films, the subtext lurking just beneath the surface and suggesting a more primal sort of terror.

Going against the grain.

Nevertheless, there is a sense of something simmering within A Quiet Place, beneath the efficient set-up and the tension-filled pay-off. The world of A Quiet Place is an apocalyptic version of rural America, populated by a family struggling to survive in a hostile land, surrounded by terrors and horrors. The family in A Quiet Place are almost a cliché of wholesomeness; hard-working sorts who live off the land, who say grace before eating, who play board games with one another and teach their children the art of survival and self-sufficiency.

The parents in the film are trying desperately to eek out a living in a world of monsters and violence. “Who are we?” asks the female lead at one point, of her husband. “If we can’t protect them?” She is referring to the family’s children. Indeed, the focus on the mother’s pregnancy reinforces the importance of protecting and shepherding the next generation, of building a sustainable world for them. The family embodies a very romanticised ideal of life in rural America.

“My favourite tune is playing.”

These decent folk have been silenced by monsters rampaging through the countryside. The silence in A Quiet Place is deafening, not least because of what is not heard, but also because of what is not spoken. It is very telling that several of the characters in the film choose to break their silence with a primal guttural scream, a reminder of how important the act of self-expression is, of declaring oneself to the world. It is also quite telling that the family in A Quiet Place construct a literal “safe space”, in which they might speak without triggering an attack.

A Quiet Place never dwells to long on this subtext, but it is clear that the film is trying to say something – even as its characters cannot. However, even beyond this topical and relevant context, A Quiet Place is a beautiful piece of genre work, an impressive addition to the contemporary horror canon.

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