What makes a good horror movie? For most people, the obvious answer is its ability to have us at the edge of our seats beset with fear, to utilize sight and sound in a way that rocks us to the core. We usually grade these movies on a curve, though, because oftentimes injecting horror in a plot comes at the expense of other factors like realism or character development. As major studios continue to pop second-rate horror flicks more bent on having startling jump scares than a fear-inducing atmosphere, “A Quiet Place” demonstrates that there are still creative ideas floating through the mainstream (on Michael Bay’s radar, no less).
Based on a story conceived by longtime collaborators Bryan Woods and Scott Beck and rewritten by John Krasinski, “A Quiet Place” tells the story about a family struggling to live a life in the absence of sound. That absence is a survival mechanism, since a hypersensitive beast drawn to sound has pushed humanity to its last breath, pummeling militaries around the globe and leaving families to fend for themselves. What this creature is, exactly, is uncertain as not once in the film do characters or the numerous scraps of newspaper pages scattered throughout reveal to us the nature or intent of the film’s antagonist; all that is known is that it’s a blind, nearly indestructible creature that hunts its prey through echolocation. So don’t enter with an intent on probing into the “why” behind its existence, just accept it for what it is.
Krasinski’s script is agile, making excellent use of its short 95-minute run time without pandering to our ignorance. We enter not with expository newsreel footage folding into each other like pages of a book we’ve all read many times over and filling us in on the state of the world, but long after the cataclysmic onset. It’s Day 89, and the Abbott family is looting the husk of an abandoned town in upstate New York. Lee, Evelyn (played by Krasinski and his wife outside of the film, Emily Blunt, in their first film together) and their children walk barefoot through paths of sand they’ve laid out to dampen their footsteps, because — as the riveting first 10 minutes shows us — the threat of death is constantly looming on their fragile shoulders. Something early on triggers an upset in the family dynamics before the film cuts to a title card and an indication that a year’s time has passed, and we’re in Day 472.
Gradually, the intricacies of the Abbott family’s silent way of life are revealed as we spend more time with them: Dinner plates are substituted with oversized lettuce leaves, utensils are a thing of the past, Monopoly pieces are toy bits of fabric and, most excitingly, they communicate entirely through American Sign Language. One of the children, Regan, is played by Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf in real life as well as in the film. When switching to her perspective, the sound design swallows what little sound would be heard, which creates tense moments that ingeniously utilize her disability in service of some good thrills. When you have a monster that hears everything and a vulnerable character who can hear nothing, the result is a caustic recipe for a horror film in the hands of a smart director (which, Krasinski proves to us, he is).
In case the title wasn’t clear enough, “A Quiet Place” is comprised of a sonic palette so muted the sound of your neighbor’s popcorn munching stands out. While not completely devoid of orchestration or dialogue, it’s a legitimately refreshing style that keeps audiences on edge. It’s this level of technical finesse that makes the jump scares that permeate the film so puzzling — whether this can be chalked up to Platinum Dunes’ creative interference or a lack of faith in audience’s willingness to engage with a hushed soundscape, it’s at odds with the film’s cunning subtlety.
In the absence of jump scares and — in the case of Simmonds’ character — sound, “A Quiet Place” still manages to viciously pull viewers by the neck. There’s something primal to it that feels like an answer to the question of why “It Comes At Night” pleased critics but angered audiences. Krasinski interrogates us, asking the lengths one would go to protect their family. But beyond the easy mark of familial love in the face of adversity is a genre film that succeeds at delivering scares without foregoing the principles of good old-fashioned quality filmmaking.
Verdict: John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” is a tense tour de force that makes masterful use of its setting. It certainly relies too heavily on jump scares, which is troubling considering how excellent its brooding atmosphere instills the film with terror, but it’s directed with such fine precision to overshadow such nitpicky errors. It’s not often that a horror picture this large hits so many of the right notes, but it’s another indication that, just maybe, Hollywood is realizing the potential of the genre.