Amidst the constant arms race of films trying to one up each other with action scenes that are always bigger, flashier and louder than the competition, John Krasinski decided to go backwards and get small for his not quite directorial debut. The cast is small, the setting is small, the focus is small and as the title implies, the sound is especially small. As the saying goes, size does not matter, for this more fine-tuned and focused thriller is easily one of the best films of the year, and joins Annihilation as a must see for anyone able to drag themselves to a theater.
A Quiet Place takes place in a U.S. that is a few years in the future, and around two years after a sonically gifted species of monsters have decimated the entire world. Or, well, maybe they did. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is the setting. It takes place in a rural area of the U.S. There are some trees, a couple farms, a small town and that is about it. There are no landmarks or obvious signifiers of the setting, so we can only guess where it takes place. My guess is somewhere in Appalachia, but who knows. There are other people around, but those interactions are kept to a minimum and communication is virtually nonexistent- at least when it extends beyond sign language with the few people around you. All of this contributes to a threat level that can never be fully contextualized.
The monsters in this film are given no name or description, and we only know that they are hyper-sensitive to sound, and that they are ruthless killing machines that decimate the source of any sound they catch on to. There are three in the area surrounding our family in this film, and for all we know, those could be the only three for half the continent. The government could have figured out some viable solution months ago and is slowly implementing it, but our family would have virtually no way of discovering that information. With the world having gone to hell, communication is a challenge.
Without internet or satellite communications, the family cannot send texted- based messages out: no emails, not texts, no emoji or the vastly superior gif messages. They can only communicate via radio waves which inherently must be heard. While it is possible for there to be people on the receiving end of the Morse code messages that the father sends out, they may not have the means or the willingness to listen in. Once again, the setting is very small. We are only dealing with three monsters which are rarely in the same place. The focus is not on a planet-wide epidemic, it is on a single family that is isolated from the world and basically on their own to fend off the most dangerous creatures on the planet. Brilliant.
Now that we have gone on for far too long about the setting, let’s get into what is by far the most intriguing aspect of the film, the sound. This is not a silent film by any means, but it is a very quiet one. If the monsters aren’t around, there is no score. In order to keep things that way, there is no speaking, so the only sounds we get are ambient sounds from the characters and environment. Or, if you are unlucky, you get plenty of ambient sounds from the other people around you, which brings me to a recommendation: watch this outside of peak hours.
Go on a Tuesday morning or something. Just get away from a crowd. Even if a vast majority of the people in attendance do their best to be quiet, they are not going to succeed. When the film is doing the very best it can to make no sound, you suddenly become like the monsters and are acutely aware of every sound that you could possibly make as well as all of those around you. Need to shift in your chair to get into a comfortable position? Tough, you gotta wait. Want some popcorn or some candy? Nope, Eat early. Need to get up to use the restroom? Too bad, you should’ve gone before we left.
Poor Evelyn Abbot (Emily Blunt) goes through the most tormenting experience any woman has suffered since Ellen Ripley.
Getting back on track, the delicately engineered experience exists for one reason: to be as tense as it possibly can, and boy oh boy does it do that well. From the very outset, the film teaches you that nothing is off limits with its first victim. Once the standard is set, we get into the actual film where we know that any little sound that anyone makes is going to have death accompanying it, and absolutely anything could make a sound at any moment. When the silence is finally broken, the tension sets in and doesn’t let up for a long time. Slow ramp ups are mixed in with atomic bombs which keep the tension rising in some capacity throughout the entire film.
This is masterfully done for almost the entire length of the film, but it does fall off a bit at the end. 2017’s Detroit had a very similar structure with rising tension levels throughout the film (directed by Kathryn Bigelow, but featuring John Krasinski interestingly enough), but an audience member can only physically keep that up for so long before they start to wear down. A Quiet Place suffers from that same issue as the conclusion plays out, as it is just difficult to maintain that level of tension and stress internally before we need a water break. Compounding this physical fatigue is the fact that we get some pretty good looks at the monster, and we really begin to understand how it works. With knowledge of the threat comes a lack of fear, as it is harder to be scared of something we know about and understand. Knowing more about the monster was likely inevitable, and is a relatively small knock on the film, but it is a contributing factor to the weakening of the tension which is the films greatest strength.
A Quiet Place is yet another strong outing for a horror film. Last year was a banner year for horror films with Get Out, It Comes at Night, and It leading the way, and 2018 witnessing its first big horror success with A Quiet Place. Horror is continuing to evolve and adapt to the new setting it finds itself within. We seem to be in between trends at the moment, and there is not a strong formula to follow for every piece of trash studio horror film to follow. Instead, we seem to accidentally stumbled into a trend of good horror films coming out which feature a lot of personality, good buildup of tension and even with the big commercial one, It, it at least knew how to have some fun. If talent continues to gravitate to the genre and bring in fresh ideas and concepts, then the genre will continue to see its stock rise and we could continue to see some fantastic thrillers and horror films come out in the coming years.