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Why A Quiet Place is the apocalyptic movie America needed

The surprise hit is a timely mix of horror and family drama.

John Krasinski and Noah Jupe in A Quiet Place Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In between the cinematic titans of Marvel’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, the nation’s box office champion has been comparatively unassuming. In the lull between blockbusters, the post-apocalypse family drama/horror film A Quiet Place sneaked into the unexpected position of the second-highest-grossing film of the year — and even after Infinity War pushed it into third place, it’s continued to make waves. As of May, its domestic take is nearly $170 million. That puts it within reach of Get Out’s domestic take and makes it Paramount’s most profitable film since 2015’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. Of course, a planned sequel is already in the works.

Directed and co-written by John Krasinski, who stars in the film with his magnetic real-life partner Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place has made its way in the world based largely on critical acclaim and word of mouth. It’s gained both mainly through a combination of stellar acting, raw suspense, and a heart-wrenching and tender look at parenthood.

But A Quiet Place represents more than just a respite from an endless stream of superhero movies and cinematic noise. Its look at a nuclear family struggling to maintain the essence of who they are in the middle of nightmarish circumstances also strikes a chord that resonates with many in the Trump era.

The debate about the film’s genre highlights what makes A Quiet Place so unexpected

Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe in A Quiet Place
There’s something almost Spielbergian about A Quiet Place’s construction of hope.
Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures

One of the key debates about A Quiet Place has been whether it’s a “real” horror film or more properly a family drama. Sure, it has monsters, and jump scares, and a plot built around the kind of life-endangering, creature-caused apocalyptic threat that forms the backbone of many a classic horror film. But it also has the kind of moving family conflict at its center that feels more at home in a family drama or heartwarming, Spielberg-esque adventure.

Krasinski has played into this when he describes the film: “I chose to do a family movie that happens to be scary,” he stated regarding the film’s genre. That’s an interesting way of describing a film that’s built solidly on horror tropes — but it’s a smart way of encapsulating what people love about A Quiet Place. As Vox critic Alissa Wilkinson notes, “A Quiet Place isn’t just a jumpy thriller. It’s also the story of parents trying to protect their children from a hostile world.”

More to the point, it’s the first major post-apocalypse film drawn entirely in the Trump era (Krasinski was brought on to rewrite the film’s script in early 2017 and production began in the fall) that depicts a nuclear family growing and becoming closer as a result of crisis, instead of being driven further apart.

In recent years, the sci-fi and horror genres have been filled with post-apocalypse narratives that have attempted to use individuals, often teens or young adults, as avatars for extremism’s impact on society. The Girl With All the Gifts pitted a precocious teen against a militarized academy attempting to control her; Maze Runner had Dylan O’Brien caught in a metaphorical labyrinth of social conventions and expectations; 10 Cloverfield Lane saw Mary Elizabeth Winstead battling her way out of a survivalist bunker.

Even when last year’s deft It Comes at Night centered on the tensions erupting between two nuclear families as they try to band together after an apocalypse, the film largely framed its look at the impact of a larger unknown horror through the lens of its teen protagonist. It Comes at Night smartly peeled away the veneer of its “us against the world” mentality to reflect the way deeper ideological tensions can strain the social contract that holds families together in times of deep social upheaval — and ultimately erode it altogether. The film used fraying family bonds to expand and intensify the horror its teen hero was living through.

This is all fairly standard for these genres. Horror films frequently turn to nuclear families to generate deep unease; in recent films like Goodnight, Mommy, The Babadook, Mama, and Under the Shadow, a mother or a child (or both) becomes somehow unfamiliar or distorted, while the bond between them is threatened.

We’re used to seeing post-apocalypse and dystopian films that lean on the myth of the lone hero in the wasteland (think The Road or The Book of Eli), or else rely on the building of unexpected found families in the absence of nuclear families (Pacific Rim, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Purge series). The Walking Dead has made the gradual depletion of its main characters’ nuclear family a long-drawn-out theme; The Hunger Games, the progenitor of the current glut of dystopian cinema, literally blew up its main character’s sustaining hope that the nuclear family can survive in a dystopia.

The way young adult fiction has leveled up in the wake of The Hunger Games has been to turn to the direst dystopian variant possible, with a spate of narratives fixating on teen suicide. Speculative genres like horror and science fiction, however, were already prone to dismantling social structures through the element of a dystopia; if they’ve leveled up in any way in the Trump era, it’s been through an increase in spectacle (Ready Player One) and a doubling down on their commitment to nihilism (The Purge: Election Year, Don’t Breathe).

What we don’t typically expect from the convergence of horror and dystopia is for a post-apocalyptic film to do what A Quiet Place does: center on the nuclear family and argue that family bonds can actually strengthen and sustain us through the worst crises.

America really needed a film about a nuclear family winning against the apocalypse

Last year’s It Comes at Night gave us a very different view of a nuclear family struggling to survive the apocalypse.

The media narratives we consume and populate in times of sociocultural tension often tend to reflect our fears as a result of that tension. Horror films like A Quiet Place and It Comes at Night are the drilling down of our culture’s current fixation on dystopia, and as such, they offer different micro-alternatives that help us frame our ongoing social nightmare as a war to be won or lost by nuclear families.

It Comes at Night shows us what that war looks like when it’s being lost. Its nuclear family is built on a fully traditional view of the family, with Joel Edgerton playing the rigidly masculine patriarch at its center. The film hints at a vast social decay by giving us a view of manhood that feels as though it’s becoming rapidly obsolete: Edgerton’s character is violent, armed, and increasingly paranoid about outsiders. His desire to protect his family is clear, but over the course of the film, his humanity recedes as his fear of the Other grows. He and his teenage son grow further apart, and ultimately the patriarch’s fear outpaces his love.

Krasinski’s character in A Quiet Place is also the head of his family. But where Edgerton’s character’s rigid rules form an incontestable hierarchy that ultimately undermines his entire family, Krasinski’s character clearly shares equally with his wife the burden of protecting and providing for his family. The Krasinski character’s strength as a father is internal, coming not from his power to physically intimidate or to wield violence, but from his ability to empathize and understand members of his family despite the barrier of silence imposed upon them.

It Comes at Night is often brutally silent — it displays cold distance between its increasingly estranged family members, and things not stated are ominous. By contrast, through its pervasive silences, A Quiet Place lets its characters communicate constantly. The earnest and urgent way sign language is used between family members continually evokes their ever-present care and concern for each other. They touch frequently, have entire conversations with their eyes, and make us believe this is a family whose deep love for one another has allowed them to survive this long.

The main conflicts of both A Quiet Place and It Comes at Night involve a father’s devolving relationship with his rebellious teenage child, but the ways these conflicts play out stand in direct contradiction to each other. At the heart of It Comes at Night is the question of whether the father’s paranoia will overtake his love for his son; at the heart of A Quiet Place is the question of whether the father’s love for his daughter will ever be loud enough for her to hear.

The daughter, played by Millicent Simmonds, is a willful teen struggling with guilt over the death of her younger brother. Convinced her father blames her and resents her, she grows more rebellious and their relationship grows more tense. Ultimately, this conflict leads to the film’s most moving moment, a testament to the love between them and an affirmation of the power of familial love in times of crisis.

A Quiet Place eschews offering itself up as a direct metaphor for the current social paradigm. But its themes resonate particularly loudly a year into Trump’s presidency, as ideological polarization continues to wreak havoc on the social fabric of our communities. Where most post-apocalyptic narratives show families fracturing under the stress, this one offers a plain and simple alternative: Loving one another, despite clear opposition and conflict, is how families survive and ultimately win against disruptive forces, whatever they may be.

It’s arguable that the timing of A Quiet Place was as crucial to its success as its hopeful message. Perhaps a beleaguered and battered public, tired of fighting with each other, evading harassment from members of the opposite side of the political spectrum, and avoiding relatives on Facebook, just needed a break from seeing its ideological splintering reflected through the media it consumed. Possibly, we responded to A Quiet Place’s gentle reminder that it’s okay and natural to love members of your family even while you’re in active conflict with them.

Sure, the apocalypse of A Quiet Place is the result of a weird ear-monster invasion, which is a far cry from the cavalcade of factors that have led to the undermining of our democracy. But in the absence of other films that manage to tackle the darkest metaphors of the Trump era without imploding families, A Quiet Place occupies a unique position at a moment when we probably needed to see families being okay together, surviving, and winning against all odds.

And in a moment when even the most apolitical narratives take on political significance, A Quiet Place’s box office success may be a sign of unified hope that perhaps we can all get through our fraught current sociopolitical era with our families — and our capacity for listening to one another — intact.