Is A Quiet Place, the new horror film directed by John Krasinski, secretly a comedy? You wouldn’t think so from the marketing, which is all rustic doom and bearded gloom, post-human quietude with a side of Emily Blunt soundlessly mouthing screams. Even still, I’m not so sure.
The movie tells the story of the Abbotts, who are trying to survive a plague of unnamed and unexplained humanoid creatures endowed with an extremely keen sense of hearing, their ear canals expanding big enough to toss a baby through and their long, powerful legs ideal for scrambling to snatch up anything bold enough to make noise. One little sound, even a cough, and these monsters will come scrambling into your backyard like house cats hearing that promising first crack of a can of wet food being prised open. Pretty inconvenient for the Abbotts, who aren’t the only survivors of this invasion—if that’s even the word for it—but who are essentially the only people we see. The sense of a diminishing local population, and of this family’s ranch as a last stronghold, makes the movie that much more tense and the characters’ mistakes that much more frustrating. It’s a great premise: no rickety global backstory, no apocalyptic preamble, just these fucked-up ear monsters and the family trying to survive them.
But at this point in the history of movies, surely characters who scribble about two tweets’ worth of rudimentary evidence and rhetorical questions on a whiteboard in all caps, like junior detectives hot on the case of who stole their lunch money, can afford to be mocked just a little—monster or no monster. A slow camera pan past the Abbotts’ many, many excruciating weeks of deep research and careful insight (from the whiteboard: “What are their weaknesses?” “SOUND”) makes it seem like the movie’s in on a joke very much worth telling about survival-as-genre. Ditto to a guffaw-worthy magical childbirth, and especially to the makeshift, soundproof crib devised for that occasion, which made me squeal at its inventive ridiculousness. When a rusty nail sprang out of nowhere to ruin everyone’s day, I went catatonic.
Is the movie in on the joke? A Quiet Place is an engaging picture about how to live peacefully among monsters, making its release uncannily well timed to the Roseanne reboot, among other things. But half the thrill of watching it is admittedly in wondering whether Krasinski and his cowriters, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, were trying to spare the SNL writers’ room the work of coming up with a parody. If the other people in the theater are laughing instead of shrieking, please don’t shush them. They’re more or less in the right.
Feel free to shush them, however, for every other sound you’re inescapably bound to notice when a movie called A Quiet Place puts its back into the quiet part. Krasinski’s film dares to spend its opening five or so minutes basked in complete silence, when candy wrappers in the theater are still being shredded open and the dozens of busy hands grabbing popcorn by the fistful can practically be heard out in the parking lot. That seems like a miscalculation at first, but among Krasinski’s greater directorial coups is the sense that this initial silence implicates the audience in the story—to say nothing of immediately establishing what’s at stake. A film that demands silence of its characters implicitly demands the same of the people watching it, and it’s strange, even admirable, how effective A Quiet Place can be when you realize that you’re holding your breath not only as a natural reaction to suspense, but in abidance of the rules of the movie. You’re not in danger, but you might find yourself inadvertently behaving as if you were.
That doesn’t mitigate much of A Quiet Place’s inadvertent silliness, but it does make its thrills refreshingly vicarious. The Abbott family numbers four: parents Evelyn (Blunt) and Lee (Krasinski) and kids Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who, like the actress playing her, is deaf. Simmonds’s casting would ideally owe to the fact she’s a fabulous actress (she was the breakout star of last year’s Wonderstruck). But it’s more likely thanks to the fact her presence justifies the choice to make the other characters adept enough at sign language to carry a movie. Is the convenience of her casting utilitarian to the point of being offensive? It probably doesn’t help that the role is disingenuously empowering. Simmonds and Jupe give wonderful turns, however: vulnerable, frustrated, and genuinely afraid. They are true avatars of the terrors lurking in this movie.
Sadness lurks, too. The Abbotts had a third child, Beau, but as the opening scene reveals, he gets snatched by one of the monsters after a toy he’s playing with makes noise. The entire family witnesses his death and, in a grim way, learns from it. So does the audience. For every precaution the Abbotts have taken against these monsters, you’re forced to recognize that they did so without making a peep. Taking in all the adjustments they’ve made to their house since the invasion—canning food and storing it either on low ledges or in a cellar, developing an extensive security protocol with cameras and a silent alarm system, creating a somewhat soundproofed hideout under the house, and so on—you realize it had to be done completely silently, without even one error. The hours of labor and planning implied by all of this is kind of remarkable, and the family’s chic farm-to-table lifestyle (fresh-caught fish! lettuce leaves as dishware!) more or less lives up to it, even as the characters’ persistently dumb errors throughout the movie make their survival to this point seem hilariously implausible. It’s as if the characters waited until the cameras were rolling to finally, lethally, fuck up. Then again: Isn’t that, as a movie concept, sort of funny?
Here, by the way, is a precaution the Abbotts don’t take: birth control. I fully understand that if there were no dumb choices made in horror movies, there’d be no horror movies. But you’ve gotta wonder, like, why. Despite the script’s efforts to prove otherwise, it’s hard to believe that a dead-kid backstory combined with a monster apocalypse wouldn’t deter reasonable people from risking death every time their newborn needed to burp. I didn’t know that before this movie. Now I know. Or maybe better writing might have saved it—but the characters as they are don’t strike me as the kind of people to overlook the fact that bringing another child into this world means having one more person to lose. It feels like the movie wants you to accept Beau’s death as explanation enough for having another child. But isn’t the more likely lesson, for these people at least, the reverse?
Unless, of course, the movie is a parody, in which case certain choices—like opening the movie with a shot of the family raiding pills in a pharmacy—are ironically funny. Couldn’t bring yourselves to grab the Plan B while you were there, huh? (And does this mean Evelyn and Lee have to have completely silent sex? … Forever?) A cheesier horror movie, or rather one that knows it’s cheesy, would insert a pregnant character into this premise just for the fun of it, knowing fully well that such a character is begging to become a snack and milking that tension less for pathos than for thrilling black comedy. A Quiet Place has the thrills, but it also roots itself in the sensitivities of family and loss, making you wish you understood why Evelyn and Lee would have a kid against what, in the context of their other thoughtful precautions, feels like their better judgment. A Quiet Place fast-forwards from the loss of one child to the impending birth of another, when they’ve already built a soundproof (they think) hideout for having and storing the new baby. The link couldn’t be more clear. But the psychological underpinnings are unsatisfyingly vague.
A Quiet Place is a classic example of a film that needed to be either better or worse to really be good. It needed either to embrace that it’s a dumb horror movie populated by dumb people making dumb choices and revel in that fact, as its premise is more than prepared to do, or to earn its self-seriousness with real complication and compassion, preferably something beyond poorly scripted dramatic arcs and the lonesome Americana of Krasinski’s beard. Rustic tones and well-choreographed images may obviate the former, but they don’t automatically add up to the latter.
Too bad for Krasinski, then, that Justin Timberlake snatched Man of the Woods for an album title before he could come up with it, because the phrase more or less sums up his purpose here, both as actor and director. The movie’s self-decapitating final punch line comes when Krasinki’s mountain-man attitude and firmly patriarchal grip on his family give way to winking subversion in the end, with an act of sacrifice. Tellingly, even this moment is too self-satisfied for its own good, and even it, for its tragedy, can’t help but be unbearably funny. It’s emblematic of the movie as a whole: Krasinski may take it all very seriously, but that doesn’t make it serious. I don’t think that’s the movie’s intended takeaway, but as I laughed my way into the aisle after it was over, it was the only one that seemed to stick.