Few things are more fundamental to human expression, never mind cinematic narrative, as speech. It isn’t merely the words we say, but how we say them. Tone, volume, inflection, cadence. The right combination of all four of these can turn even the simplest words into a profound statement. So what happens when we’re not only denied this ability but told that the use of speech could put us in mortal danger? That’s the basic premise behind the taut, gripping sci-fi/horror film A Quiet Place, which trades sound for silence to terrifying effect.
The story follows the Abbott family as they deal with the aftermath of an alien invasion by creatures who track their prey with sound. The world has largely fallen into ruin, and the family survives by keeping silent and scavenging. Father Lee (John Krasinski) and mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) guard their son Marcus (Noah Jupe) and deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) on a farmstead near where some of the blind aliens hunt. Their situation becomes complicated due to Evelyn’s pregnancy and the strain the situation places on their family bonds, threatening to break the unsteady, silent protection they’ve worked so hard to achieve.
A Quiet Place is the cinematic embodiment of the axiom “deeds, not words.” The original draft of the screenplay by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck contained only one line of dialogue. More lines were added when John Krasinski, who also directed, re-wrote the script, but these additions only emphasize how much more important the non-verbal portions of the film are.
We find out much more about the characters and their circumstances through their actions and facial expressions than we do the relatively banal conversations they have when soundproofed against the alien invaders. Early in the film, Lee and Evelyn share a quiet slow dance to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”, expressing multitudes through body language that would seem otherwise trite when said out loud. When they do share a spoken conversation later in the film, it seems almost out of place.
It’s this reliance on silence that helps sell the horror aspect of the film. It’s terrifying enough when the aliens draw close to the home but even more so when you realize that something as instinctive and natural as screaming out will all but ensure a gruesome fate. The fear becomes internalized as the characters doubt their ability to keep themselves safe, and this corrosive feeling feeds the inter-family tension that makes the characters relatable and human. The aliens are frightening enough, but they become mere harbingers of doom compared to the insubstantial fear of even the slightest sounds.
Under Krasinski’s tight, assured direction, every noise on the soundtrack becomes amplified and dangerous, from the creak of a floorboard to the rustle of movement in a corn field. When breaking the silence can be a death sentence, every sound becomes a hazard. Visual cues become even more important, and it’s easy for the viewer to get so absorbed into analyzing the frame that when sound does appear, it’s a shock. The mood is helped by Marco Beltrami’s perfect accompaniment of a score, which serves to underline what Krasinski is doing instead of dealing any major heavy lifting on its own.
What truly makes the film work as well as it does, however, is the uniformly absorbing and naturalistic performances by the small cast. Krasinski and Emily Blunt are married with children in real life, and that bond translates excellently to the screen. Lee and Evelyn’s relationship is built on unspoken connection but also on a clear emotional resonance that comes through in their scenes together. Blunt in particular is hypnotic during the film’s second act, when Evelyn starts to go into labor while one of the aliens stalks her through the house, the primal terror she experiences writ painfully obvious. Krasinski’s Lee balances his own emotional output with a world-weariness that’s clear through the actor’s intensely expressive eyes.
More interesting, however, are the performances of the two child actors. Marcus and Regan have each processed their situation very differently, with Marcus constantly afraid and Regan acting out in rebellion. Noah Jupe is quite good as Marcus, often seeming to take cues from Krasinski’s methods, but it’s Millicent Simmonds who emerges as the true standout. Communicating entirely through sign language, she conveys an intense amount of complex emotion with ease and without a single sound. Simmonds like Regan is deaf, and there is a mesmerizing authenticity and fierceness to her performance. Krasinski often drops the sound entirely when focusing on Regan’s point of view, and that leads to some of the film’s most intense scares.
While the film has a tremendous amount going for it, it does have some flaws in its setting, but nothing egregious enough to be considered an outright weakness. We never learn why or where from the aliens came, and we never see the world outside the Abbott’s compound. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, and when combined with the aliens’ spidery appearance gives them a quasi-Lovecraftian terror mystique. However, when the family finally (and accidentally) discovers the aliens’ one weakness, it’s something so relatively simple that it’s hard to imagine that someone else hasn’t already stumbled upon it, especially after 470 days post-invasion.
A Quiet Place isn’t concerned with world-building so much as it is concerned about showing the emotional moments of the Abbotts’ struggle to survive, and thanks to the commanding performances by the cast, this is what gives the film its true power. The need for silence might seem like a marketing gimmick to some, but it quickly becomes a metaphor for humanity in general and our reliance on our words. Evelyn at one point asks her husband who they are if they can’t protect their children, but the true question is who are we when we can speak only with our actions? It’s a question that turns out to be more frightening than any alien invader, and like the film that asks it, it grips the heart with terror so tightly that we’re left speechless.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+