Click here for the interview with John Kraskinski and Margo Martindale for Kraskinski’s feature-film directorial debut, THE HOLLARS.
In ALOHA, an otherwise unmitigated disaster of a film, John Krasinski had a remarkable scene in which he told a poignant story of deep and emotional import without saying one word. It was all in his face, and the feat was accomplished with a minimalism that was nothing short of breathtaking. I wax far more loquacious about it here, and only bring it up at all because if that short scene was his undergraduate senior thesis for the impact of silence, his sophomore directorial effort, A QUIET PLACE, is his doctoral thesis, the which he passes with full marks and extra honors.
This starkly terrifying horror film posits a near future where any sound above a strained whisper results in instant and gruesome death courtesy of the insect-like creatures that now populate the landscape. Where they come from and what their effect has been beyond the farmstead where the story is set is handled without traditional exposition. Instead, we are treated to an introductory vignette in which we are also introduced to the thoughtful, carefully observed directing style that Krasinski will use to tear our hearts out even as those same hearts are pounding with fear-induced adrenalin. In the first few minutes, leaves skitter along the street of a deserted country town, and a family, Krasinski, Emily Blunt as his wife, and three children (Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward) are scouring a looted pharmacy for medicine to treat their elder son. They speak in sign language. They are careful where their bare feet step. Parental discipline and affection are communicated with facial expressions and body language. So is anguish when, inevitably, a kind act by the daughter towards her younger brother results in tragedy, and in our first fleeting glimpse of why the world has changed so completely.
We follow the family’s routine. Krasinski searching for a solution to the big issues, as well as repairing his daughter’s hearing aid, her deafness providing the excuse for the family’s fluency in sign language and the irony of her not being able to hear the noise that could cost them all their lives. Blunt maintaining the façade of normalcy with a tender courage and an iron will that makes us all want to believe it when these parents assure their children that everything will be alright, that they are safe, a belief juxtaposed with the dead certainty that reality is impossibly bleak. It’s also a reality that is about to change significantly in a way that will put them all in even more jeopardy, adding a note of urgency to Krasinski’s search.
Krasinski has hit on a brilliant new way to scare an audience over and above seducing us into becoming emotionally invested in his characters. Why lob blood and guts when a lamp being knocked over can make you jump out of your seat? He’s also reintroduced us what made silent films so potent. Without the crutch of spoken dialogue, the dynamics of the audience-film relationship is changed. We pay a different kind of attention to what we see and, hence, become more engaged with what is happening. It’s not an accident that you don’t realize that none of these characters are named beyond their familiar roles until the film is well underway, if then. It’s also no accident that the way they are forced to stifle screams and sobbing is almost too much to bear.
In creating a world where silence means survival the details are everything, starting with the complex but affectionate family dynamics. Dinner is served on lettuce leaves and without utensils that might clank and give the family away to the blind monsters that don’t seem to have any other weakness. The nuclear family, with all its strengths and failing, hunkered down in a bunker without doors that might slam, becomes the prize worth defending at all costs, even in the face of what seems to be certain doom. How long, after all, can they keep this up? When Blunt silently cajoles Krasinski to dance with her, their wistful smiles speak volumes, and the music we hear when she shares one of her earbuds with him, takes on a defiant poignancy. When Krasinski finds a way to speak to his son with words at normal volume, it’s a tiny triumph coupled with an unexpected sense of relief.
Then there is the sound design, which balances the eerie silence of family life lived under duress, with musical cues that are the stuff of nightmares. As is only appropriate, when we finally get a good look at those monsters, their Tyrannosaurus Rex-inspired teeth pale in relative horror to their obscenely large auditory apparatus that pulses with malicious intent, and shines with unholy excrescences.
A QUIET PLACE is a bold choice for a fledgling director, but one that pays off. As in all the best horror films, the tropes address primal fears in ways that are simpler to process, but no less unsettling because of it. It’s also got one of the best fade to black moments in recent filmdom.