Sunday, April 08, 2018

A Quiet Place

There's a wonderful purity about the premise for A Quiet Place. Set in a world where the population has been decimated by alien creatures with ultra-powerful hearing, it all comes down to one simple rule: make a noise, and you're dead. How long do you think you could survive under these conditions? When the film begins we're told it's Day 89, and we are immediately given a sense of how one family of survivors lives day-by-day in this post-apocalyptic landscape. They creep barefoot around the abandoned stores, stockpiling necessary medicines and supplies, and they don't even dare to speak in a whisper, communicating instead in sign language. When one of the children accidentally knocks an object from a shelf, his mother swoops desperately to catch it before it hits the floor. If this seems a little over-dramatic, we soon see what happens when they slip up, with the family's youngest child being snatched away moments after unthinkingly turning on an electric toy.

Thus begins an agonisingly tense waiting game. We know that somebody, at some point, is going to stumble, to drop something, to emit a scream; but until that happens we can only sit there gripping the arms of our seats in the silent dark. A Quiet Place reminded me of the famous Hitchcock quote in which he defined suspense, using the example of a bomb being hidden under a table where two people are talking – “In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!'” In the case of this film, the bomb under a table becomes the upturned nail in a staircase. You want somebody to pull that nail out – you want to shout at the screen – because you know that inevitably a bare foot is going to sink down on it and the unfortunate soul will have to silently swallow their howls of pain. But director John Krasinski (who also stars, alongside Emily Blunt) teases out the moment, finding the perfect point in the narrative to subject us to this horror.

Who knew Krasinski had this in him? At ninety minutes the film, co-written by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, is stripped to the bone, minimising exposition and backstory to just a handful of glimpsed headlines and focusing intently on these four characters. Despite the taut nature of the film, what really elevates A Quiet Place is the way these actors are given the time and space to convince us with their portrayal of a co-dependent family unit. Each of them has their own vital role to play in the drama, notably the deaf daughter Regan (the hugely impressive Millicent Simmonds), who feels a sense of responsibility for her younger brother's death and is desperate to prove herself in her father's eyes. As I watched A Quiet Place I thought of the similarly styled Don't Breathe, but whereas that picture was defined by its sadism and sleaziness, Krasinski's picture allows us to form a connection with this family and each member of it, which lends their scenes of peril a powerful emotional charge. “Who are we if we can't protect them?” Blunt asks at one point, having just complicated matters further by giving birth to the couple's fourth child.

This particular plot detail gave me pause. There are many logical questions that A Quiet Place raises (it's simply impossible to believe that the family's current domestic setup and security measures were all assembled soundlessly, for example), but the pregnancy of Blunt's character may be the trickiest one to answer. When a single sound can mean death for the whole family, would you risk having a baby? Even if it is intended to assuage the couple's guilt and grief over losing a child, it just seems like an inexplicably poor character choice. But then Krasinski and Blunt pull off a pregnancy sequence that is so intense and riveting, all such questions suddenly feel meaningless. A Quiet Place may not stand up to scrutiny in the cold light of day, but what really matters with a film like this is how it plays in the dark of a cinema, where you can feel the whole audience collectively holding their breath, listening to every single sound, and jumping out of their seats when they hear something they don't want to hear.  In those moments, it works like you wouldn't believe. I had little hope for John Krasinski as a director based on the messy Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and the generally tepid response to his 2016 film The Hollars but – whisper it – his third feature feels like an instant genre classic.