Since graduating from the Chris Pratt School of Getting Jacked to Become a Leading Man, John Krasinski has flung himself headfirst into a promising career as a director. I’ll confess I haven’t seen his first two films, 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (made while he was still starring in The Office and based on one of my favorite essay collections by David Foster Wallace) and The Hollars (2016), but that’s okay because his suspense-thriller A Quiet Place (2018) is being marketed as a sort-of debut – both in budget and in lofty aspiration. Produced by Michael Bay, it’s highly possible this film wouldn’t exist if not for Krasinski’s first Pratt-esque starring role in Bay’s military-propaganda film 13 Hours (2016). So the question becomes: was getting rigorously jacked, becoming Lumberjack Daddy and posing for Michael Bay’s burly-man fetish worth it for Krasinski to bring his vision of a high concept, no-dialogue thriller to life?
Short Answer: Yeah, kind of!
A Quiet Place is a good movie! It may not mark a high-point in modern horror, and it’s certainly not the revolutionary game-changer critics are making it out to be, but it embraces the strengths of cult VHS thrillers gone-by. A Quiet Place is very much the type of film that would have been gleefully made on a early-Spielberg budget by Roger Corman’s protégés cir. 1991, transposed into the orchestral suspense language of modern studio horror via Michael Bay bombast. It’s a stylistic Frankenstein of a film that somehow manages to crawl out from the mire of pastiche, whether by the grace of Krasinski’s direction or the quality of the performances, and tell a concise and emotionally gripping story with (just like the trailers say!) nearly no dialogue.
If nothing else, Krasinski and his team deserve commendation for casting a deaf actress in a leading role. Regan Abbott (Millicent Simmonds), the daughter of Krasinski’s Lee and Emily Blunt’s Evelyn, delivers the best performance in the film. Her deafness is never treated with the gimmicky objectification with which most directors write off a disability, and her character growth – while absolutely influenced by her disability – is not wholly driven by it. Rather than boil their lead down to an essentialist 2D-render of a deaf person, Krasinski and co-writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck imbue her with the same sense of agency they do the rest of their principal cast. This characterization is slightly cheapened, however, by the filmmakers decision to create a world in which Regan’s disability is not as debilitating as it would be in ours; a world in which sound, including speech, can literally kill. It does seem to impart a rather problematic message that deafness can only be an advantage (i.e. a blessing in disguise) in such a specific post-apocalyptic setting. At the same time, however, the film makes an excellent case for ASL and hearing-impaired activism: it’s heavily implied that the only reason the Abbotts survive well into this apocalypse scenario is that they have a deaf daughter, and therefore already all knew ASL – giving them a sharp edge in silent communication. Call that meta-commentary if you will.
Activist politics aside, A Quiet Place is a mostly-taut thriller that wastes no time and floats no lobs. It opens with a gut-wrenching moment of violence that all at once establishes the characters, the rules of the world, the setting and, most importantly, the monsters. The VFX team deserves due recognition for creating truly lethal beasts. So much of the premise of A Quiet Place hinges on the fear these aliens inspire, and the creature-design team is absolutely up to snuff. The writing in the opening thirty minutes helps craft fine suspense. The tension ramps up in seemingly no hurry at all, the world is fleshed out in ways both subtle and frightening, and the central conflict is established neatly and without unnecessary exposition. So much of the first act of A Quiet Place feels like a film-school experiment gone completely right.
The high-concept (usually) integrates very well with the story. As barebones as the plot may be, it deals mostly with inconvenient geography and the physical mechanics of the world instead of milking the whole “monsters who hunt only by sound” premise for all its worth. It’s a very tactile survivalist story, evoking screw-and-bolt suspense-thrillers like Blue Ruin (2013) and Blood Simple (1984). The infamous ‘nail’ scene will likely go down in modern thriller history for damn good reason; it’s a prime example of tight reversal filmmaking and feels so beautifully self-contained that it could be its own short. It’s also refreshing to see that despite being a real-life couple, on-screen couple Lee and Evelyn (Krasinski and Blunt) spend most of the movie apart, playing off their respective strengths and weaknesses. The movie is very much a love letter to the sacrifices parents make for their children, and both performers do a great job of emphasizing the equal lengths, if by different means, they will go to protect their own.
The problem with A Quiet Place is, unfortunately, the meat of the damn movie: the scares. Other than the aforementioned nail scene, all the frights in this film rely on cheap orchestral twangs deployed after just the right amount of silence to send your popcorn flying (NOTE: Trying to eat popcorn during this film is an exercise in masochism). The cinematography is nothing to write home about, but given the quality of performances it stands to reason that Krasinski and his DP/editors could have done a better job of fueling the fear with visuals and editing rather than with cheap non-diegetic sound effects. A Quiet Place is a Spielberg suspense-thriller with the sound design of an Insidious-type horror film. It just feels…wrong. The villains are not ghosts. There is nothing ethereal and incorporeal haunting our protagonists. There is no reason to elicit cheap scares with minor-key violins when the rules of the world and its monsters are more than enough to craft meaningful tension. This otherwise tonally consistent film didn’t seem to extend its “monster-thriller grounded by resourceful kids and their all-star parents” influence to the editing and sound-design teams. The over-dependence on these modern horror tropes feels like a waste of a unique premise.
I can get past the cheap horror, but the overly-written second act undoes much of the good faith earned by the first half-hour. The protagonists are thrust into increasingly elaborate circumstances of woe by increasingly contrived inconveniences. Every plot point is transparently written to get Person A to Location B, to separate Persons C and D, and to put Monster A in a room with Person D. The well-crafted characters have believable motivations for everything they do, but the world (read: the writer) is so obviously just trying to spite them that the plot could not suspend my disbelief. The film is saved by a great Chekhov’s Gun in the final ten minutes, but even despite an emotionally powerful climax, the bulk of the action sort of just putters along from cheap jump-scare to cheap jump-scare.
Nonetheless, A Quiet Place is a fine theatrical experience worth sharing. The characters are fully realized, the world is deeply engaging, and the high-concept melds neatly with the strengths of the story. If Krasinski can do this much with concept and character despite a hodge-podge of competing cinematic influences, I’m excited to see what he will dream up next.
A Quiet Place is bogged down by an over-reliance on cheap modern horror tropes and a noticeably contrived second act, but the strong performances and excellent world-realization elevate this film far beyond average studio thrillers. Worth paying for a theater seat (but for your own sake, please, skip the popcorn. Trust me).