Auditory spectacle 'A Quiet Place' is a masterful horror film

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 4/24/18 2:25am

The year is 2020 and sightless creatures roam the Earth, using their impeccable sense of hearing to feed on remaining human survivors. This is the premise of the new horror film “A Quiet Place,” and it’s a magnificent example of the sort of story pitch that manages to be provocative and exciting in a single sentence. As Hollywood studios attempt to monopolize comic book adaptations, sequels and shared cinematic universes, this species of engaging, original pitch has become increasingly rare.

Of course, bad execution can squander the potential of a compelling idea. But actor-director John Krasinski and co-writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck have crafted a crackling and intelligent screenplay. I’d be surprised if another film this year manages to bring its premise to life as effectively and completely as “A Quiet Place.” We sometimes forget that brilliant filmmaking isn’t just about radical techniques and revolutionary ideas. Often it’s about making the most of what the cinematic medium already has to offer.

Krasinski plays Lee Abbott, a survivalist who lives with his wife Evelyn (played by Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s actual wife) and their children Regan, Marcus and Beau. The aforementioned aliens have reduced the family to whispering and sign language. Complicating their circumstances, Evelyn is about to give birth and Regan is deaf with a malfunctioning hearing aid, making her even more vulnerable to the creatures.

The first half hour of the film is a meticulous introduction to this dystopia and the dilemmas it presents for each of the main characters. Upon initial viewing, the pacing feels exceptionally slow — even tedious. But the viewer’s patience pays off. What appears to be little more than a day in the life of this family turns out to be replete with setups that the rest of the movie systematically pays off.

Once the plot kicks into high gear, it never relents, culminating in most nightmarish and chaotic evening of this family’s life. The film, rated PG-13, isn’t especially gory, but it builds tension masterfully, ratcheting up the suspense until it becomes almost unbearable. Film critic Roger Ebert used to talk about Bruised Forearm Movies — films where you and your date grip onto each other’s forearms so tightly that your arms turn black and blue. “A Quiet Place” is the quintessential Bruised Forearm Movie.

A lot of the horror, particularly early on, derives from the film’s repeated use of jump scares. “Jump scare” has recently become something of a pejorative term, seen by horror fans as a lazy way to get an emotional reaction from the audience. Although “A Quiet Place” has a few such moments, the film’s premise allows it to brilliantly distill the jump scare. A typical jump scare relies on a sudden sound to jolt an already tense audience. The problem is that the sound is often more frightening than the visual or narrative element that accompanies it, one of the many reasons why jump scares often seem so cheap. But they work in “A Quiet Place” because in this universe, nothing is scarier than a loud sound.

Throughout its 90-minute runtime, “A Quiet Place” uses its premise to playfully subvert the viewer’s expectations. Film, after all, is an audio-visual art form. When the audio component of that relationship is taboo within the film’s diegetic narrative, new possibilities and paradigms emerge. Ever since the release of “Jaws,” horror films have sought to increase suspense by keeping their monsters as hidden as possible. The fear often depends on the visual design. The Xenomorph in “Alien” remains terrifying because the few brief glimpses the viewer gets are so surreal and otherworldly. By contrast, “A Quiet Place” introduces its creatures early and shows them in their full glory frequently. Yet none of the terror is diminished because the fear they produce has far less to do with the visual and far more to do with the audio.

The film also explores the possibilities of audience identification with characters. Most films rely heavily on point-of-view shots and other similar techniques to get the spectator into the mental space of a given character. While “A Quiet Place” certainly uses POV shots, it more commonly creates an auditory point of identification. The sound design often reflects Regan’s perspective as she struggles with her deafness. Actress Millicent Simmonds, who is actually deaf, heightens these scenes with a truly authentic performance.

On that note, while all of the actors are excellent, Regan is the only character who feels fully three-dimensional. This flaw has nothing to do with the lack of dialogue and everything to do with thin characterization. It’s hard not to wonder how the film could have been even better if everyone had been as complex and developed as Regan. Furthermore, the family’s clear and somewhat problematic gendered division of labor hangs in the air, never fully addressed. The final scene does seem to reverse the power dynamics to some extent, but I still wish it had felt more resolved.

These are minor quibbles, though, and they pale in comparison to the myriad details, both big and small, that make this film so rewarding. It may not be perfect, but “A Quiet Place” is one of the best films I’ve seen in the past few years. It’s smart, it’s concise and it packs an emotional and intellectual punch.