Even as directors seek to innovate, there is an inherent difficulty to searching for creative storytelling. Groundbreaking novelties beget tropes and before long these seemingly fresh new ideas become yesterday’s gimmicks. But it seems unlikely that the premise for director John Krasinski’s third film, A Quiet Place, will be recycled any time soon.
The world of the film is haunted by an alien menace that kills at the slightest sound. Existence is perilous and muted, but not hopeless; just as quickly as life evolves, people adapt and redefine their sense of normalcy.
In stark contrast to most refugees who outlive an apocalypse, the dynamic within the family of survivors is quite domestic. The mother, played by Emily Blunt, prepares home-cooked meals beneath the basement floorboards; the children play Monopoly after dinner; sand marks safe passageways and muffles stealthy footsteps.
True to human ingenuity, where problems cannot be wholly solved, they are worked around. But while the family’s everyday life offers excellent examples of visual storytelling, the substitution of speech with American Sign Language betrays the double-edged qualities of A Quiet Place’s innovative techniques.
Viewers may find it difficult to gauge the gravity of key scenes because, despite well-choreographed facial expressions, signing does not always resonate on the same level as speaking. However, this handicap is also used by Krasinski to the narrative’s advantage: when suppressing the most basic of emotions becomes harrowing tests of will, it cannot fail to strike a chord with the audience.
Thankfully, A Quiet Place rarely runs out of ideas to spur new conflict, even if dilemmas within the family err on the side of cliché. The daughter, played by the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, feels misunderstood and argues with her father.
The younger son, played by Noah Jupe, has to learn to survive and protect the family. But aside from these glaring moments of cinematic déjà vu, the largest elephant in the room is the pregnant mother carrying her child to term.
This alone would have been enough to fuel the entire film if Krasinski had fully explored the implications of bringing new life into such a hostile world.
Instead, the family is forced to silently outwit a gamut of increasingly difficult traps, turning many of the larger philosophical questions A Quiet Place might have posed into just another superficial layer of tension.
As a whole, the film can stand its intellectual ground; it is only when any one scene is examined that suspension of disbelief collapses.
Krasinski was smart to only explain the machinations of his anonymous monsters — a hybrid between J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield monster and a head of asparagus — through visual imagery. Delving into the preamble of how humanity was virtually wiped out would have introduced too many inconsistencies within the existing plot and restricted the characters.
True to the contemporary style of protracted reveals, the monsters themselves are deliberately shrouded in mystery. Their nebulous presence is anticipated with every errant sound and belated gasp. As far as cinematic bogeymen go, Krasinski has exploited a well-established niche and reinvented it within the confines of A Quiet Place’s mystique.
Even if the aliens are not the most intimidating extraterrestrials, the tension becomes outright palpable when they are on-screen: synonymous with instantaneous death, the least the audience and survivors alike can do is hold their breath when an alien appears onscreen.
Sadly, the means of defeating these lethal stethoscopes is less inspired than their premise. And while this does not detract from the emotional impact of the film’s denouement, the MacGuffin that overpowers the alien foe — as does most of the logic in A Quiet Place — only works within the boundaries of the film’s storyline.
Like so much of A Quiet Place, everything looks good on paper. Similar to the characters themselves, the script works around a lot of its own limitations, however, the viewer’s experience will undoubtedly be hampered by this minimalist attention to detail.
With the sense of sound proving lethal, a filmgoer can expect to count each crunched kernel of popcorn and rickety armchair in the theater in lieu of actual sound effects; their senses may become as heightened as those of the survivors’ but at the expense of the film’s integrity.
This is an unwieldy debacle for a film that prides itself on depriving its viewers of situational awareness. The reliance on jump scares to maintain the unpredictable nature of an explicitly silent film may overwhelm viewers for a time, but after a while the gimmick falls short. Such retreats into the fallacies of Hollywood horror detract from A Quiet Place’s character, which otherwise works best when simply being itself.
Even with similarities to the Black Mirror episode “Metalhead,” which sees a ragtag band of survivors fleeing from a clique of hunter-seekers programmed to exterminate humanity, Krasinski hits his mark.
All the elements of his story coalesce into a feature-length film that neither overstays its welcome nor beats viewers over the head with heavy-handed metaphors.
The only question the viewers must ask themselves is whether they can trust the rest of the audience to respect the utter silence that the film needs in order to be taken seriously.