For better or for worse, horror films have always been defined by their gimmicks. Whether it’s the killer’s physical attributes, the setting, or something the victims must refrain from doing (i.e. don’t breathe, keep moving), we watch such films in hopes that their gimmicks successfully scare us. A gimmick, however, is only as good as its execution, and more often than not the tagline for these films fail to extend beyond their marketing campaign. It’s always a disappointment to go in expecting something unique, only to receive a familiar routine of predictable jump scares and foolish character decisions.
A Quiet Place, by comparison, commits so fully to its “no sound” rule that, when an actual line of dialogue was spoken forty minutes into the movie, my hairs nearly stood on end. It is that tense of a horror-thriller. The opening ten minutes does everything to convey how the arrival of a sound-sensitive extraterrestrial species not only caused modern society to collapse, but also how a single family, the Abbots, have been affected by them. Whereas other films would have opted for an exposition dump, director John Krasinski (Jim from The Office) instead takes the viewer eighty-nine days since the invasion and visually demonstrates the steps necessary to survive in this new world. Tiptoeing around locations is essential and the tiniest bit of noise, no matter how miniscule, is enough to draw their attention.
Jumping forward a year after this haunting intro, the elder Abbots, played by Krasinski and his real-life spouse, Emily Blunt, have taken multiple precautions to ensure their remaining family’s survival. Communication with their two kids (played by Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) is done through sign language, sand trails are used to reduce footsteps, and food is eaten on lettuce leaves rather than plates. Their new home, an abandoned farm, offers distance from the mainland but hardly enough to escape the creature’s hearing, so rooms are designed to make as little noise as possible. As the father uses his radio and newspaper clippings to discover any possible weaknesses in the creatures, the mother must deal with an even more nerve-wracking experience: preparing for the arrival of a newborn child in her third trimester.
While none of these characters are “complex,” the narrative successfully frames their relationships as genuinely compelling, a basic cinema trait that most horror films tend to glance over. What’s unique about this film, however, is how A Quiet Place builds these relationships through visual and non-diegetic, rather than verbal, forms of communication. The musical score is haunting and unnerving, yet successful in conveying the right emotional beats necessary to make us feel what the characters feel. Even quiet moments continuously reinforce the isolation and paranoia that resides within this geographical setting, most notably when the daughter’s deafness renders her incapable of hearing the extraterrestrial creatures. The Abbots might have a mastery of their surroundings, but this knowledge can only prepare them to such a degree before we are reminded that it’s all they can do without calling out for help.
Both Blunt and Krasinski deliver amazing performances as two parents doing everything they can to ensure their family’s survival, and the child actors prove equally talented in matching their non-verbal chemistry. What’s even more impressive, however, is how Krasinski chooses to frame the aliens as omnipotent presences that, until the final act, seem unstoppable. Similar to M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, the film always ensures that the alien’s true form remains obscured from the camera’s field of vision, resulting in a payoff that proves worthwhile. This, once again, is due to the film’s mastery of its “silence equals survival” atmosphere, reminding us time and time again that we do not need to see these creatures up close to fear them. The Abbot’s constant silence says more than enough.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Clocking in at an hour and a half, A Quiet Place has just the right length to remain suspenseful without ever feeling padded. It is a tense, nail-biting thriller that never forgets to remind you that, in this world, the slightest sound can lead to an untimely death. And yet, because this horror gimmick is backed up by a compelling narrative of love and grief, almost completely devoid of dialogue, it results in what I believe to be one of the decade’s best horror movies.