‘A Quiet Place’ is a startling tension machine

April 13, 2018

No matter how much you hate horror movies, you cannot deny that the genre is in the midst of a real renaissance. From the plodding scares of “It Follows” to the terror of “The Babadook,” horror has seen a genuine re-emergence in terms of both originality and quality (a similar re-emergence also occured last year when M. Night Shyamalan made “Split,” his first good movie in a decade). The best indicator of this revolution was last year’s phenomenal and Oscar-winning “Get Out,” and now John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” joins the ranks of some of the best in this re-energized genre.

The year is 2020, and society has fallen to unknown beasts that are fast, blind and incredibly sensitive to sound. A family of five—make that four—survivors exist in total silence, starkly aware that any noise they make would alert the hideous monsters to their position. Exposition is kept to a minimum (mostly distributed through stray newspapers and spare notes), but the rules of the film are clear: make noise, you die.

The premise is simple and bulletproof, and leads to a unique synthesis of cinematography and sound design. First of all (but maybe as expected), “A Quiet Place” has some of the most engaging audio production in years—the last movie to have such intentional mixing and engineering has to be “Mad Max: Fury Road.” In fact, “A Quiet Place” has more in common with “Fury Road,” certainly more than most other horror flicks: there’s very little dialogue, the storytelling is efficient and robust, and there’s a real attention to detail.

This attention to detail is also what makes watching “A Quiet Place” such a stressful experience. Because it’s so easy for any character to accidentally make noise, the viewer is constantly scanning the frame for what objects or items are going to end up making sound. The tension is a constant. These people could doom themselves at any moment, and Krasinski’s camera has a slow and steady intimacy that gives us a sense of how anything and everything could go wrong in an instant. This is particularly impressive considering that neither Krasinski nor his cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, had ever made anything that can be considered “tense” before. In other words, who knew Jim from “The Office” had this in him?

It also feels like there’s been some real thought put into how a family would interact with the world around them without making any noise, from walking on sand to using sign language to communicate. But there’s also some dramatic depth in the silence. The film opens with the death of one of the three children, and the silence that follows has a narrative explanation as well as serving as a metaphor for the grief the family is experiencing. That being said, the film does abandon any notions of a deep metaphor halfway through, as it gets louder.

There isn’t much to be said about the performances, but they’re all fine. Casting Emily Blunt as Krasinski’s wife is yet another intelligent choice (the two are married in real life as well), because the pair has a chemistry and warmth together on screen that must be a reflection of their actual relationship, and you immediately buy them as a couple without much dialogue. Also commendable is the decision to cast deaf actress Millicent Simmonds as Krasinski and Blunt’s daughter, which has an efficient story implication: The family would already have known sign language when the monsters arrived, and thus are able to communicate silently in this soundless world.

The movie is not perfect—the back half is a lot less thoughtful than the start, and the creature design is not very interesting. The antagonists basically look like the demogorgon from “Stranger Things” with a little bit of “Alien” Xenomorph DNA thrown in. It’s not bad; it’s just not particularly inspired. The film also feels a little long, which is odd considering that it’s only 90 minutes. Maybe that’s just the excessive tension, as it makes watching “A Quiet Place” almost exhausting. Finally, there isn’t much in terms of character growth, but that isn’t really the point. Like “Fury Road,” “A Quiet Place” is a visceral and unique experience, and it’s certainly worth seeing in theaters (for the sound mixing alone).

Yes, the main takeaway from “A Quiet Place” is that it’s very scary—and therefore, very effective. The horror revolution doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, and “A Quiet Place” is a worthy addition to an already-extraordinary cannon of films. Who knew Jim from “The Office” had this in him indeed.

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