This season’s breakout horror hit, A Quiet Place, is bound to remind you of something—probably a certain something. A suspense thriller about a tight-knit family processing a recent loss in their ranks, living among their cornfields somewhere in the more idyllic section of the East Coast, and coming together to confront the mysterious and intractable alien force destroying humanity: where have we seen this before? The new film finds in its high-concept approach to horror a scenario more productive of sustained suspense, but when one steps back from the intense experience of watching A Quiet Place, it’s hard not to see it as a re-dressing of that earlier, not particularly fondly remembered film.
The concept that underlies the entirety of A Quiet Place—that the family at the center of the film must lead a silent life, as the blind monsters who have killed everyone else on earth respond only to sound—is an inspired extrapolation from a familiar horror scenario. How many times in horror films have we seen scenes in which characters must remain silent in order not to attract the attention of a killer or a blind cave monster (perhaps another source of inspiration)? While turning a single scenario into a feature-length film is a risky proposition, screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck and first-time director (and star) John Krasinski manage to keep the idea fresh, for the most part. The film’s economical script, Krasinski’s methodically paced reveal of the monsters, and the final hour’s constantly intensifying situation makes it easy to stay on board for the run of the film.
Occasionally, however, A Quiet Place can’t but feel a tad contrived, scenarios like its well-advertised “silent birth” scene feeling somewhat like the “aha!” moment of screenwriters’ brainstorming sessions they undoubtedly were. Krasinski and his real-life wife Emily Blunt play the heads of a family who have survived the monster-borne apocalypse in large part, it is implied, because their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf. The entire family knows American Sign Language, which allows them to communicate without making sounds—speech above a barely perceptible whisper is highly dangerous, practically guaranteeing a fatal visit from one of the large, spindly monsters who have ended the world.
The couple’s children are young, however—Marcus (Noah Jupe) is still prepubescent—and Blunt’s character Evelyn is pregnant. The occasional obliviousness and frequent clumsiness of young children, along with the impending birth, promise the opportunity for lots of noise. The film indulges the spectator’s contradictory anticipation and dread of these moments, teasing us effectively with scares both “false” and real. Both as vague, blurry shapes in the background of shots, and upon their eventual full reveal, the monsters are terrifying—even if they also remind one, perhaps too strongly, of Stranger Things’ demi-gorgons or the monsters in J.J. Abrams’ films. Regardless, as a viewer, I was both kept on edge and made to start repeatedly throughout the film; it was a fun, intense time at the movies.
In the end, however, I have to wonder whether the film offers much more than that. Learning from M. Night Shyamalan (as he learned from Spielberg) the dubious lesson that the best means of grounding a suspense film is by making it a parable about family, director and star Krasinski makes the relationships the focus of the story. But there’s not much of an interesting twist to the messaging here: parents’ roles are to protect and care—the first is the man’s job, the second the woman’s—and childrens’ roles are to learn by their parents’ examples. Other recent horror films have done far more interesting things with both familial and social relationships in the end-times; the thematically complex, evocatively shot It Comes at Night (2017) also addresses the models of identity and behavior set by parents, but it does so by examining them critically. By means of horror-parable, it addresses themes of paranoia, control, guilt, and repression. A Quiet Place has no interest in such ideas: the patriarch’s paranoia is wholly justified, the mother is happy in her role as provider, “family” is represented as an abstract ideal rather than a relationship between flawed people.
Speaking of those people, the performances from Emily Blunt and John Krasinski are, by and large, commendable. You can see genuine care for their fictional children in their faces and actions, and the couple’s presumably true affection for each other comes through in the film. Insofar as this is the case, the movie’s clear desire to instill its rather schlocky scenario with believable characters is fulfilled. However, A Quiet Place’s too-convenient plotting often gets in the way of the characters’ believability. A glaring example is the whiteboard on which Krasinski’s character has neatly written a few, very succinct facts about the monsters, with the phrase “WHAT IS WEAKNESS?” framed in red. It appears prominently throughout the film, obviously planted to prepare us for that moment in the film when the creature’s one weakness (they must only have one) will be discovered.
I couldn’t look away from this whiteboard whenever it was onscreen: it was as if Krasinski, the co-writer and director of the film rather than the character he plays, had accidentally left his plotting notes on set. On reflection, a lot of the film is like this whiteboard: it wears its plot machinations—and its numerous debts to previous films (it gently steals from the same Jurassic Park scene twice)—on its sleeve. While A Quiet Place is a good time at the movie theater, I suspect it won’t be one of the suspense movies that is still discussed a few years from now.