A Quiet Place

The opening sequence of John Krasinski’s post-apocalyptic chiller A Quiet Place expertly establishes the movie’s paralleling threads of genre interest, family drama and jump scare horror, by observing the Abbott family as they silently slink around the aisles of an abandoned pharmacy, evidently fearful of making a single sound. It’s a tight, tense beginning, but it’s also the movie’s early peak. Over the course of the following 90-ish minutes, Krasinski increasingly opts for dramatic shortcuts that make for an entertaining, yet emotionally underwhelming experience.

Perhaps the clearest way to contextualize the movie’s decline is to suggest that it diminishes the potential as laid out in that excellent opening. Krasinski wants to do two things in equal measure: make us feel for the family and cause us to grip our armrests. The beginning doesn’t weigh one aim against the other, but rather shows how Krasinski plans to balance the two so that both the drama and the scares work together for a common goal of emotionally engaging the audience.

That plan doesn’t last long, though. Soon after, Krasinski uncouples the tethered themes so that much of the first half is a family drama in which the threat of death by sound-sensitive carnivorous alien is merely background noise complete with a fakeout scare to throw us off. Then the second half switches gears again, conveniently splitting the family up and making the previously hidden monsters a newly ubiquitous presence in a slick string of fright sequences that leave little room for the once-budding drama, now reduced to soggy sentimentalism.

To be fair, this structure makes enough sense that it seems a justifiable decision and horror cinema often spends a chunk of the running time introducing the characters and the dangers of their situation before ratcheting up the tension with a suddenly relentless back half. But A Quiet Place seems to, however understandably, betray the promise of its great beginning by squandering the opportunity to keep the two targets intertwined. It’s not scary when it’s so focused on the family drama and it’s not moving when it goes all-in with the scares later on.

The themes feel like separate pieces of a whole and Krasinski’s idea of how to reconnect these pieces while maintaining a brisk fright flick pace is to insert easily definable elements that can add some quick punch to the proceedings while undermining the purer emotional content. For much of the movie, the family consists of dad Lee (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), but eventually a baby is added because, in this situation, having a newborn is shorthand for INTENSE SCARY SEQUENCES.

Every scene that follows with Evelyn trying to keep the baby quiet while an alien monster creeps around their farmhouse is appropriately upsetting and unnerving, but it’s tough to ignore that it’s also cheaply manipulative. Everyone watching has to be well aware that there’s no way a commercially viable Hollywood pic about family survival is going to kill off the brand-new baby, so the newborn’s purpose is only to generate an easier sort of scare, a tactic that emphasizes the movie’s mechanical shift from intriguing family drama to sappy scarefest.

Before the baby arrives (and after, too), much of the dramatic weight pinning the family down is reduced to friction between Lee and Regan, who blames herself for a fatal error in judgment and assumes her dad does as well. Regan is deaf and Lee works tirelessly to fashion a working hearing aid for his daughter, but the many failures have soured Regan on the effort in general. It must be difficult to talk about your feelings when any sound could literally herald your death, but the Abbott family members are all fluent in sign language, so there’s not a particularly compelling excuse as to why Regan is so convinced her dad hates her and Lee is so oblivious to his daughter’s feelings.

Sure, an explanation can be given, since Lee’s pretty busy with the basics of post-apocalyptic survival when he’s not soldering hearing aid pieces together, but the issue here is that Krasinski positions this conflict at the heart of the movie’s, well, heart. Even though the family is all in this together, which is well depicted in the opening sequence, the fractured Lee/Regan relationship is intended to be the emotional epicentre around which the movie’s theme of parental responsibility orbits.

The other characters suffer as a result. Marcus’s only issue is that he’s scared (who isn’t when they’re being hunted by monsters?!?) and Evelyn’s participation is, for much of the movie, trapped almost comically within a set of traditional gender roles. At one point, she’s the stay-at-home housewife who does laundry (so engrossing that she doesn’t notice her daughter sneaking off, which becomes a major plot point) and later she’s the stay-at-home mom watching after the baby while her husband mans up and goes into superhero mode outside in the dark.

It’s not that this isn’t somewhat believable on some level, but rather that it could all be so much more interesting and original with relatively easy alterations made. Adding the baby as little more than a suspense-inducing prop only dilutes the potency of the movie’s parental metaphor and it also forces Evelyn into an unnecessarily passive role until the very end of the movie. Making Regan’s fear that her father no longer loves her an eventual means to a syrupy end is equally frustrating in how it both overcomplicates and weakens the primality of the emotions in play here.

In the end, the family drama aspect of the story tugs too robotically at the heart strings while the jump scare horror elements suffocate the initially honest look at family dynamics as filtered through a survivalist lens. At the same time, perhaps it’s a bit harsh to focus so greatly on the negatives of a movie that still has enough fun with its neat conceit to be fairly called an above average fright flick.

The premise has such powerful potential that I yearn for more even as I appreciate what the movie does well. There are some very fine decisions nestled among the bad ones, including that there isn’t a single speaking role for anyone outside of the Abbott family. We’re made aware that there are other survivors, but the only characters we have any real knowledge of are contained within this one group. Krasinski also avoids the temptation to get into the backstory of the alien invasion, leaving only a few lingering shots of newspaper clippings as clues to the origins of the situation.

These are nice touches that narrow the perspective to the Abbott clan and achieve the sense of intimacy that horror cinema often craves. There’s even the implication that all noise is actually painful for the aliens, which intriguingly offers the antagonists a slightly sympathetic sliver of motivation beyond simply being hungry monsters. This is another good idea drowned out by the din of forced family drama, which prevents the movie’s thrills from having a greater, deeper effect.

On a particularly personal note, it has dawned on me that what I’m wishing the movie to be isn’t far off from a movie I already received and love, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 sci-fi/family drama combo Signs, which is also about aliens terrorizing a family at their cornfield-surrounded farmhouse. That movie plays creatively and cleverly with the idea of each family member contributing to the group’s overall survival, creating an exacting, engaging portrait of individuals as fragments of a whole. No one is going to accuse Shyamalan’s writing of being particularly organic, but the thematic puzzle pieces of Sign’s script are masterfully interlocked to the point of poignance.

A Quiet Place is a less imaginative, more contrived ode to familial love. It remains a well-oiled, competently acted thrill ride, which certainly counts for something in a subgenre that is often nothing more than recycled shlock, but as a tale of parents protecting their young, it feels disingenuous in its overly laboured execution. Krasinski works hard for that big emotional payoff, only to fruitlessly expose the cogs inside his treacle processing machine. His lack of subtlety and dramatic nuance ring out loudly, for which the most sensible response in this situation might simply be a serious shushing.