Don’t move. Don’t make a sound. Don’t even breathe. It’s a scene we know all too well: a trembling victim swallowing their sobs to stay undetected by an approaching villain: from Jamie Lee Curtis cowering in the closet in Halloween, to Jodie Foster tiptoeing in the dark in The Silence of the Lambs, to two children hiding from raptors in the kitchen in Jurassic Park. Rarely have such slices of suspense been stretched to comprise an entire film. That’s the neat premise behind A Quiet Place.
Director and lead actor John Krasinski (the star of the US version of The Office, where he perfected communicating to camera with silent wide eyes) and his off-screen wife Emily Blunt play the parents of a family of five. We first meet them in 2020, 89 days after blind creatures with supersonic hearing took over the world. Speak, drop something, sneeze – and they’ll rush at you from nowhere, killing you instantly. They’re seemingly the only surviving family around: thanks to their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actress who also stars in Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck) they all know sign language. Yet her deafness is a blessing and also a curse: Regan can’t hear her own sounds, or a monster’s approach. They live below ground in an almost sound-proof home, only leaving occasionally, walking barefoot on paths they’ve made of soft sand. But even this isn’t enough to guarantee their safety.
Such a premise, of course, invites sudden noises piercing a hushed soundscape; followed by long, tense scenes of desperate, silent fear – as characters hover, barely breathing, just out of reach of the monsters. But A Quiet Place doesn’t just ask if it could be possible to build a life in a state of permanent, terrified silence. It also grows into a (sometimes blunt) metaphor for the terror of parenthood. Before the title card has rolled, their youngest child has been killed; the grief and guilt haunts each family member. By day 479, Blunt’s character is pregnant again, her belly swelling with the promise of uncontrollable, noisy wails.
Childbirth, a newborn’s cry, a toy spaceship, a game of Monopoly, childike curioisty and volatile teenage emotions all become life-threatening: children are feared for their sheer vulnerability. Like all parents, our leads are ultimately caught between wrapping their children in (soundproof) cotton wool, and guiding them into the unknown, so they might, one day, survive on their own. Must we force our children to do things that frighten them? Should we be extra protective of children with particular disabilities or disadvantages, or does that only make life more difficult? Is telling a child they have nothing to fear always, in some sense, a lie?
A Quiet Place has been compared to Get Out for its social commentary, metanarratives of diversity and representation, critical popularity, and mainstream appeal: it debuted at the top of the US box office, the best opening weekend since Black Panther. But A Quiet Place isn’t layered with complex symbolism or searing insight. Instead, its broader questions are communicated most effectively when they linger uneasily in the background, least when they are spelled out in unsubtle dialogue. For a supposedly “silent” film, there are a remarkable number of lines that should have remained unspoken – from the film’s most conspicuous quote, “Who are we if we can’t protect them?” to a climactic declaration of fatherly love. At these points, the film assumes it has greater depths than it really does: instead it’s at its best when it knows it’s gimmicky, and has fun with it – playing with its own premise and teasing at tropes of the genre while winking slyly at inescapable, universal horrors.
This article appears in the 11 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war