*Be Warned – Very Mild Spoilers for A Quiet Place*
I’ve always said that, for any medium, the key to creating a compelling narrative is developed characters. This is especially true in crafting exceptional horror movies, where the disturbing events unfolding on screen pack an intense punch not just because of their scariness but because of the risk they pose to characters the audiences cares about. Yeah, a novel concept, good pacing, and deft camera work contribute, but no one cares about any of that if the characters aren’t watchable.
This is especially true for A Quiet Place, which wisely uses its script and actors as the foundation upon which the whole movie is based. Its inventive concept, heart-pounding scenes, and swelling tension would have fallen flat without the work that went into the script and the acting. In doing so, A Quiet Place stakes a claim as the first exceptional horror movie of 2018. (I know that’s not saying much when compared to films like Winchester or The Strangers: Prey at Night, but the rest of 2018’s horror movie faces stiff competition.)
A Quiet Place takes place in a world where an unthinkable catastrophe has occurred—nightmarish creatures, from God knows where, have descended upon the Earth and, as far as anyone knows, decimated the population. These creatures are blind, but that only means they hunt humans and animals alike using a keen sense of sound. Anyone wishing to avoid an attack must be careful not to make a single sound that might attract the attention of the monsters. Surviving in the midst of this new world is the Abbot family, comprised father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf. The Abbots have adjusted, somewhat, to life in their new silent world, but every day is a struggle to avoid the detection of the three monsters that roam the area just outside their family farm. And doesn’t take much for things to go horribly wrong.
The script is so, so strong. Just…a ton of scenes that were nerve-shreddingly tense on top of excellent writing (I watched a ton of scenes through my fingers, y’all. Shit was scary).
I want to grab the screenplay for A Quiet Place, along with the screenplays for Get Out and The Witch, and study all three them. Those films anchor their narratives in rich and nuanced relationships. They all create a full world with flesh-and-blood characters, crafting moments of emotion and nuance and conflict and terror. All three are lean, mean, structured, and taut.
However, I particularly enjoyed how A Quiet Place layered meaning and significance in every scene. Each of the introductory scenes had the dual purpose of building the world and also setting up a specific plot detail or character’s development later on, and did so in a very organic, elegant way. That’s so difficult to do, especially in a film where no character can easily dispense the exposition necessary to establish the rules for the audience. A Quiet Place excelled at that challenge. The script invoked aspects of the family’s new reality throughout the film, everything from the clever use of waterfalls to symbols of the collective guilt they feel regarding an early traumatic event. Every scene either struck a match or lit a fuse (or both!).
Given the strength of the script, the actors were free to flex their acting muscles. Emily Blunt is, unsurprisingly, the acting star in this movie, as her character carries the majority of the suspenseful and emotionally impactful moments mostly by herself, and mostly without speaking. But all the actors turn in magnificent performances. Millicent Simmons, who is deaf herself, is a very skilled actress and will be a force to watch as she continues to build an impressive resume (she has won numerous awards for her starring role Wonderstruck). Noah Jupe plays his character with timidity and fear that never feels over-the-top. John Krasinski infuses his character with a restrained stoicism that portrays masculine wisdom and strength while just barely concealing his character’s unrelenting guilt and fear. His is a deceptively simple portrayal.
And speaking of Krasinski, I can’t say enough about his direction of A Quiet Place. He managed the building of this new world very well. The film is very well paced. It’s not what I would call a beautiful horror film, but damn if he doesn’t know how to capture cinematic, arresting shots of the family’s existence and the danger that threatens it. His use of visual jump scares is pretty good for a horror movie, but his auditory jump scares make me want to learn how sound editing and mixing work. Clearly, Krasinski understands how to mount tension and sustain it. I especially appreciated all the “silent” moments, when a character refused to express themselves to another. No gestures. No sign language. No facial expressions. Krasinski says so much with so little.
More than that, A Quiet Place is obviously an extremely personal film for Krasinski. Emily Blunt is his wife, with whom he has two daughters. While the film explores themes concerning parenthood in general, he has baked into the film his feelings about fatherhood, the responsibilities and sacrifices and heartbreak and fear. He has taken great care to imbue A Quiet Place with those complicated emotions as well as his devotion to his family.
The Not as Good
There wasn’t much I didn’t like about A Quiet Place, but the film wasn’t flawless.
The biggest issue was the depiction of monsters, which are computer-generated. They look very CGI’d, and therefore will not age as well as the rest of the film. Also, there were certain shots where I could tell that the monster wasn’t in the same physical space as the characters. In fact, the monsters reminded me of the pitfalls of “showing the whole monster,” because they were much scarier when I could only catch a glimpse of a claw or a dark shape moving in the background.
Additionally, some scenes seemed to be way too dark. It was hard to see what was happening at times, and I missed a particular plot point because of it. To be fair, I’m not sure if that was due to the movie theater I was in, or what.
Lastly, and this is nitpicky, but there was one pivotal, heartbreaking scene that was portrayed in a very sentimental way, too sentimental considering the rest of the movie. While I agree that the scene itself was narratively necessary, it would have been better for Krasinski to restrain himself from pulling on the audience’s heartstrings that hard. But again, this is a very small critique.
The More I Think About A Quiet Place, the More It Moves Me
But the message of A Quiet Place is ultimately uplifting, despite being the saddest horror film I’ve seen in a while. Parenthood, family dynamics, collective trauma, and individual guilt carry immeasurable weights. If we choose to bear these responsibilities alone, we risk losing that which we meant to protect–our families. In a terrifying world, our burdens are too heavy to carry alone; we can and must find strength, love, and compassion in each other.
A Quiet Place, like many excellent horror films before it, finds a new way to explore aspects of the human condition. By gifting the audience a story with a fully realized cast of characters, each with their own objectives and fears and crosses to bear, A Quiet Place exemplifies how horror movies can speak volumes in ways conventional dramas can’t.