By Noah Gittell
Confession time: I have never been a fan of horror. As a child, I was too terrified of the very idea that a Jason or Freddy Krueger could exist to watch them do their murderous thing, and I never grew out of my anti-horror bias. Being scared is an unpleasant feeling, I told myself. Why would I choose to recreate that?
As a fan, horror movies are easy enough to avoid, but as a critic, I could not ignore the rave reviews that recent indies like “The Witch,” “It Follows,” and “The Babadook” were getting. The movement away from cheap scares is real. Last year, horror returned to the mainstream with “Get Out” and “It.” These films mostly bypass surface-level terrors — creaky doors and comically relentless killers — and reach for something more profoundly disturbing underneath. They do what all great films do: illuminate in ourselves that which was previously unseen.
“A Quiet Place,” the directorial debut of actor John Krasinski (TV’s “The Office”), is a weighty and ruthlessly entertaining entry in this new wave of rich horror films. It is set in a near-future in which most of the world’s population has been wiped out by aliens. Those who remain live in near-silence, since the aliens track and kill their human prey with an advanced sense of hearing. The film follows the Abbott family — husband (Krasinski), pregnant wife (Emily Blunt), deaf daughter (Millicent Simmonds), and young son (Noah Jupe) — as they try to survive a few crucial days in their rural compound.
Drawing its thrills from both horror and sci-fi, “A Quiet Place” is at its most delightful as a work of pure imagination. Before it gets to the scares, the film revels in answering the questions of its carefully-drawn world. In an early scene, they entertain themselves by playing Monopoly, but they make sure to roll the dice on carpet and have replaced those pesky metal game pieces with pieces of soft felt. But what else? How do they cook? How do they do laundry? How do husband and wife maintain their sense of romance? What will they do when that darn baby is born and it starts to cry? A lesser film would avoid these problems, but this one addresses them with a sense of fun and wonder.
Perhaps the most important question it asks is: How does a family heal? The central relationship in the film is not between husband and wife but father and teenage daughter, who feels responsible for an accident that comprises the film’s masterful prologue. She blames herself, and he has not forgiven her. The basic contours of their relationship – sullen teenager vs. stoic father – is universal, but it is magnified by the sci-fi context. When your every breath is devoted to survival, how do you find the space to heal emotional wounds? Krasinski, who taught a masterclass in nonverbal communication as Jim “The Office,” is rock-solid as the concerned father, and Simmonds (hearing impaired in real-life) is just as good here as she was in last year’s “Wonderstruck,” finding universal notes of teenage conflict in this unusual story.
The film is also just a rollicking good time. Without any real dialogue to speak of, there is no plot exposition. Typically, post-apocalyptic movies rely on long monologues that explain how its world came to be. “A Quiet Place,” for the most part, allows the viewer to figure it out on their own, turning us into active and engaged viewers. Then, when the aliens descend on their quiet home in its action-packed finale, the family’s forced silence greatly increases the tension. Our heroes go through the normal physical trials of an action movie, but they must do so without releasing anything louder than a single breath.
If the film falters at all, it’s only due to Krasinski’s inexperience behind the camera. He telegraphs a few of the key plot twists. Even the most aloof twist-guesser will see them coming. He also relies too heavily on jump-scares, in which the alien pops up in the background while high-pitched strings squeal on the soundtrack. These are the mistakes of a filmmaker who does not totally trust his own abilities, or one offering a treat to the fans of more conventional horror.
But for the rest of us, “A Quiet Place” is a bridge to a genre that people like me have historically shied away from. It’s a lesson in dramatic tension, an astonishing debut, and a signal to the world that horror can be a venue for honest, respectable filmmaking. I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting to see what comes next.
<My Rating>: See it in the Theater