Of all the movie genres, horror is the most immersive — it only works if it can bypass your brain and get your body into the act. That means tapping into as many of your senses as possible. You need to forget you’re watching a movie and think you’re in the movie.
By that measure, A Quiet Place is the best kind of horror movie. It toys with how we hear the world around us, in ways that are startling and creative and tense.
But it also does what many of the best horror films do: It uses the elements of horror to heighten a common human experience, making us think about everyday life in a new way. (Think of what Rosemary’s Baby did for pregnancy, what Carrie did for puberty, and what Get Out did for racism.)
In A Quiet Place, that common human experience is parenthood — wanting to protect your children, fearing losing them, and trying to raise them in a hostile world. In this case, it’s a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by blind, apparently extraterrestrial creatures that are triggered into a murderous rage by any sound. (Which actually may not sound too out-there to some new parents.)
But people are people, even when they’re being hunted by giant ear monsters — and A Quiet Place taps into that dread, terror, and love. The result is frightening, and it feels wholly original.
A Quiet Place uses our sense of hearing to immerse us in a frightening, visceral story
The best thing A Quiet Place does is foreground our sense of hearing. It does this in a few ways: in the story, in the characters themselves, and in the filmmaking.
The story — from a screenplay co-written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski, who also directs and stars — is post-apocalyptic, set in the very near future, around 2020. We pick up 89 days into an event that seems to have wiped out most of Earth’s population. One family of survivors is living in a farmhouse in New England: a father (John Krasinski), a mother (Emily Blunt), two young sons (Noah Jupe and Cade Woodward), and a daughter (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf. (Simmonds, who starred as a deaf girl in Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck last year, is deaf in real life.) They scavenge through abandoned grocery stores for medications and food and, to keep as silent as possible, walk barefoot through the woods whenever they travel.
The story requires them to stay quiet, because virtually any sound draws huge, vicious creatures out of the woods that snatch the offender. The family is at an advantage, having had to learn sign language anyhow to communicate with their daughter, and that might be why they’ve managed to elude the monsters thus far.
But tragedy strikes on the way home from the grocery store one day — a heart-wrenching and terrifying tragedy that leaves its scars on everyone in the family. And then the movie jumps ahead by a year, when there’s a new baby on the way.
A baby! Imagine trying to silence an infant in this world where any sound leads to instant death. The solution involves a tiny oxygen tank and mask, a soundproofed basement, and a coffin-like crib that muffles any noise.
That’s the kind of detail that animates A Quiet Place, in which all sorts of daily tasks are complicated by the imperative to stay absolutely silent: cooking, doing laundry, learning history and math, walking around a creaky old farmhouse. The movie draws us into that silent world very quickly, and every noise and potential noise rapidly becomes fraught with peril.
That’s exacerbated by the extra danger facing the daughter, who can’t tell if a noise near her is dangerous. Her father works tirelessly to create a hearing aid for her, not just so she can hear but because it could literally save her life. But she’s frustrated with the things her younger brother gets to do with her father, and increasingly angered by the future she can see for herself.
The story unwinds bit by bit, as a number of factors collide on one fateful day that leaves the whole family in peril. Sure, it feels a bit contrived at times. (Most horror films do.) But as the dominoes start to fall, one by one, there’s a cathartic thrill to seeing how carefully they were arranged in the first place. Small elements that surfaced earlier in the film come back, like some kind of scavenger hunt, putting family members in danger and extracting them from it.
We become part of that story too, thanks to sound design that’s conceived to play on the audience’s sense of hearing. It’s one of the quietest horror films I’ve ever seen, and at my screening, the audience seemed loath to breathe; munching popcorn was a glare-worthy offense. The people onscreen are being silent, and we feel like we should be too.
But even silence comes in different varieties. There’s some texture to silence for those of us who can hear; for the daughter in A Quiet Place, though, the silence that blankets her life is all-consuming, the silence of a vacuum. The movie toggles from one to the other at times, giving us a sense of how she hears her world.
All this silence makes the noises more startling, both to the characters and to us. And so we are immersed in their world, with visceral results.
A Quiet Place is also a drama about parents’ love for their children
And yet 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, and from danger that could literally destroy them if they make one wrong move. (That it happens against the idyllic backdrop of a New England autumn makes the moments of danger and terror even more stark.)
A Quiet Place taps into the fears any parent grapples with as they raise their child, even those not living in a post-apocalyptic world: Will they be safe? Will they learn the lessons they need to survive? Will they know that you love them? And even if you do everything right, will they still be put in harm’s way?
Smartly, A Quiet Place takes on these questions at several stages in a child’s development — from birth to early teen years — and situates them in this post-apocalyptic landscape. What becomes clear is that no matter how the world changes, parents will stay the same.
That’s sad, but it’s hopeful too. A Quiet Place doesn’t end with everything better — in some ways, it’s much worse. But even after an apocalypse, the world goes on. A loving family is a beacon of possibility. And though no parent ever makes all the right decisions, if they do their job, their children will be able to lead the way forward.
A Quiet Place opens in theaters on April 6, 2018.