This review was written for and appears on Punch Drunk Movies. Check out the site when you have a chance.
Jump scares. I hate them. “A Quiet Place” is full of jump scares, cheap ones too. I was apprehensive about the movie. But by the end, even though I jumped more than I’m comfortable with (which is more than zero), I had a good time with it.
As a whole, the movie is slightly slight. Story-wise, there’s not much to it. In the near future, humanity is decimated, cut down by alien monsters. A family tries to survive the apocalyptic scenario.
It’s the details, though, that make the movie more interesting. The invaders are not smart, intergalactic travelers with superior weaponry. They’re wild animals; fast, aggressive, and naturally armored wild animals that are impossible to kill. But there’s another hook, and it’s a good one: These aliens can’t see, at all. They hunt their prey solely by sound.
Amidst this alien threat, Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (John Krasinski, who also directed and co-wrote the script, along with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck) attempt to raise their three children on their family farm in rural New York. Soundproofed as best as possible –sand, for example, is placed in all walking areas, even into town– the family tries to live as normal a life as possible. But Evelyn is pregnant. How do you bring a baby into a world where noise means certain death?
As the setup implies, the movie is mostly wordless, with the characters communicating almost solely through sign language (helpfully subtitled). This gives the movie a unique vibe. In between alien attacks, it has a quiet, almost serene feeling amidst the fall foliage, gentle winds rustling through the orange trees of its bucolic setting. Of course, this quiet also gives Krasinski ample opportunities for the “unexpected” OOGIDY BOOGIDY!!!! scares audiences expect from a thriller such as this (and yes, thriller is a better descriptor than horror in this case. It’s more tense than horrifying), and he takes full advantage of the opportunity.
Unable to rely on sound, such as expository dialogue, to impart information, the movie has to lean hard into visual storytelling. It’s a challenge the movie tackles with grace, with Krasinski bringing a strong mise-en-scène to the film. That’s a fancy way of saying I like the way the shots are set-up, how information is conveyed purely through visual means with the careful placement of objects and characters within the frame.
The opening, for example, drops you in medias res into the family scouring an abandoned pharmacy for supplies, with no explanation for their careful quietness. The only clue comes as they leave the building. In the far corner of the frame, an old newspaper flutters in the wind. It’s not centered in the shot for immediate notice, but the fluttering draws your attention to it and its breathless headline (it is the New York Post, after all) in large, bold print: “It’s Sound!”
Later, Evelyn hangs up a mobile (made of fluffy material, of course) and as her lower body stretches into the frame we clearly see her baby bump come into focus for the first time. Both shots impart information simply and effectively, and their composition is both subtly artful and elegant.
The movie does find a couple of times to cheat the quiet and allow the characters to speak. I would have preferred they remained schtum. Dialogue like, “Do you blame her…” dramatic pause “…for what happened?” left me sharply pulling air through my gritted teeth, “ouch.” It’s so graceless and clunky, especially when compared to the refined visuals.
And I kind of wish the movie had been more intense. Most of the scares make you jump because they’re so obviously telegraphed. The sound drops out, you know a loud noise is coming so you tense up in anticipation and then, up out of your seat you go. It would have been scarier if these moments had been completely unanticipated, coming out of nowhere, truly surprising.
But those are minor complaints. The movie moves quickly, quickly enough that you don’t stop and wonder “…wait a minute,” because the premise doesn’t exactly hold up to close scrutiny. But after a shocking opening, and some nice table setting afterward that introduces the characters and their conflicts more fully, the movie commits most of its runtime to an extended stand-off between family and monsters. And it’s intense enough and thoroughly engaging. I got into it: Late in the movie, a person in my row accidentally kicked a cup at their feet, making a noise during a quiet moment. I tensed up and almost angrily shushed them. But it was less out of annoyance and more like, “Shhhh! The monsters’ll hear you!”