ALTERNATE TAKE: A Quiet Place (2018) by John Krasinski
Review by Ben Shull
A couple weeks ago, a highly-esteemed/respected Cinematary critic published a write-up on John Krasinski’s latest sci-fi thriller, A Quiet Place. While I agree with a couple of the reviewer’s grievances, particularly regarding the scoring of the film, there were a few main points that I couldn’t get behind. The critique had a much more scathing tone than I felt it deserved and I wanted to throw my own opinion into the mix because I do believe this to be an important film among the modern cinematic canon and, ultimately, within the science fiction genre.
Every few years, a film comes along that attempts to push an established cinematic envelope. 1982 saw John Carpenter’s The Thing break the expectation of practical visual effects, 1993’s Jurassic Park re-established the theater as an inter-dimensional wormhole, and 2009’s Avatar gave modern audiences the choice to experience the film in a variety of ways (e.g. stereoscopic 3D, hi-definition IMAX) far superior to projection techniques of yore. It seems like these types of advancements are common among science fiction films, especially since the genre’s themes typically involve the societal effects of technological advancement (or regression). While I would technically classify A Quiet Place as science fiction, it takes a minimalist approach in regards to technology. Rather than introducing new elemental technologies or fantastical theories, the film uses existing technology to observe a new problem. This is exactly how research works in the real world, as opposed to a deus ex machina approach to futurology (not that there is anything wrong with that at all).
I specifically mentioned John Carpenter earlier because I believe this film plays off of a few signature Carpenterian tropes: manipulation of existing technology (Dark Star), research as major plot point (The Thing), and social allegory (Assault on Precinct 13, They Live). Each of these play a major role in the plot development of Krasinski’s film, especially the last. The world of A Quiet Place is a silent one in which any unnatural, man-made sound can lead to a violent death. This environment is a foil of our own. We are inundated with noise, both figurative and literal, nearly every moment of our lives. Connectivity via countless analog and digital devices as well as the preponderance of social media embedded within them. Public spaces continue to be saturated with auditory and visual advertisements entwined with Muzak. There is no place left within society that chooses to remain quiet. David Foster Wallace makes excellent points regarding the social acceptance of noise as distraction from reality.
The major difference between the world that Wallace describes and the one imagined by Krasinski falls on necessity. The Abbott family relies on silence for survival as opposed to comfort. This runs counter-intuitive to the function of modern society, in which sounds and tones offer alerts, both meaningful and menial, that shape the attitudes of individuals and, potentially, the community en masse. A lifestyle without notifications requires a greater attention to detail and a dedication to an unending observation of one’s surroundings. This exemplifies the largest part of the Abbotts’ struggle, with each family member having their own role in their survival.
Admittedly, it seems cheap to claim “family” as a major theme within any film. The term carries a wealth of definitions as well as prejudices regarding said definitions. Some films claim to thematically explore familial relations, yet what we see falls more into an aesthetic category instead of a functional one. Rather than delving into a relationship between parents, siblings, and a combination of the two, some films use familial strife as a background over which a character is laid out, but fail to venture into the depths of the relationship because that may not even be what the movie actually cares to do (e.g. Donnie Darko, Heat, Garden State). However, films such as Kramer vs. Kramer and The Royal Tenenbaums give chase to familial conflict remarkably well, as does this film. There is an overall arch of grief striking each surviving family member regarding the death of the youngest, Beau, in the opening scene, but their varying relationships with one another are both beneficial and detrimental to their survival.
Lee, Krasinksi’s character, represents fatherhood in a manner that only such a film as this can help provide. The family is forced to revert to a homestead-style of living in order to survive the invading creatures, who target their victims by listening for abrupt sounds. More than anything, he wants to provide for his family in every way possible while navigating the complexities of his growing children and tending to the needs of his very pregnant wife, Evelyn, played by his off-screen wife, Emily Blunt. But unlike one may assume, Lee strays from an authoritarian type rule over the family and instead opts for sympathetic leadership, attempting to personally tend to the development and needs of both children. However, this does not come without its share of problems. As with most parent-teen relationships, there is a misunderstanding of priority between the siblings and their father, particularly the eldest daughter, Regan. Their miscommunication is greatly exacerbated by the fact that she is deaf, which causes Lee to pay special attention to her actions. Regan views this as overbearing rather than helpful, especially when she notices that her father wants to teach her younger brother, Marcus, other skills that she believes she is suited to learn as well. Of course, this frustration is shared between the siblings while the parents remain unaware of the unspoken strife.
However, there is something shared between Lee and Regan that neither make note of to the other. Lee spends what little free time he has left designing better hearing aids for Regan. Judging by the complexity of the electronic monitoring system he creates in the basement of their home, Lee is shown as remarkably proficient in engineering electronics. Later in the film, Regan is shown to have a very similar interest, no doubt picked up from her father, yet, their shared skills are not utilized in the same way that Lee attempts to do so with his son while he teaches him to fish. Ironically, it is during this time with his father that Marcus reveals the disconnect with Regan to his father. I do not believe this disconnection is nearly as malicious as other critics have implied, but rather is a portrayal of the juggling act that is parenthood. We see similar frustration between Evelyn and Marcus during his homeschooling. One would think that school should be the least of concern within a seemingly apocalyptic environment, but as we see from Lee’s work in the basement and how it ties into the rest of the compound, education is crucial to their survival. Seeing as physical labor is exceptionally risky for Evelyn at this time, she undertakes the responsibility of schooling.
Evelyn is a remarkably strong representation of the dynamism and strength of motherhood. She works alongside Lee when she can, but her pregnancy leaves her physically limited. Along with tending to the children’s education and preparing their home for the quickly coming child, she continues to grieve the loss of Beau. There are many times where she is shown to be troubled by the perceived future for the new child, yet she continues selflessly move forward. Even when met with imminent death at the hands of the creatures, she persists for the sake of the family. One thing I believe this film does remarkably well is show a shared strength between both mother and father, as opposed to alienating one and edifying the other. Neither Evelyn nor Lee is ultimately held responsible for the survival of the family, though both make (and I assume would continue to make) enormous sacrifices so that their children may live.
The Sound of Silence
I don’t remember the last time I was ever so drawn into a film. The film has a true sense of deafening silence, which is especially realized amid the shaking of ice and rustling of popcorn. It built an atmosphere of thick anticipation in the theater, which I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before and hope will translate among its various media releases. The reliance on sound, or the lack of, also presents an interesting challenge for the screenplay. There is such a dependence on the miming ability of the performers, which I believe is incredibly difficult to translate into sincerity outside comedic performance. However, I will say that there were various moments where I wished the film’s score had not intruded, especially when it was used for the numerous jump scares implemented throughout the film. Not that I think there is anything wrong with such a mechanic, but some moments brought me out of the silence of the world that the Abbotts worked to retain.
Overall, I found this to be a remarkable film. In direct response to our last critic’s point regarding the “new era” misnomer of sci-fi/horror films typified by those such as The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch, I think this has to do with a perception of sincerity. Nearly every horror and science fiction film, from Psycho to Arrival, seeks to explore a very real aspect or controversy within modern society. However, the manner of such portrayals provides a remarkably different experience within such exploration. For example, Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs both confront the brutality and degradation of rape, yet it would be remiss to compare the aesthetic sincerity of the two. Does that mean that one provides a better examination over the other? I don’t believe so, but both are certainly very different films regarding their content and portrayal therein. That said, I can see how many critics are putting A Quiet Place in the same league as the aforementioned films. It doesn’t rely on overtly fantastical effects or exploitation to get its point across, but rather builds an environment that allows its audience to somehow understand the unspoken or the unseen, filling in gaps with imaginations that have been fueled by the film’s world-building.