Protect your family and property from the unknown. Like so many horror films, the logic of John Krassinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) doubles as a Reaganite election slogan. The film is a home invasion flick with aliens. Its preoccupation with listening links it to Don’t Breathe and Hush (both 2016), but unlike the best of the genre it never plays with our points of sympathy. The slogan pounds till the bitter end: family and home, family and home. The film’s salvation is that it performs certain genre steps with grandeur. Relationships change through action. Characters don’t just win by killing their enemies; they win by becoming new people. And the use of noise becomes as much a meditation on suspense as a function of the plot.
The exhalation of breath. A twig breaking. Sound is always a fundamental sense in horror, but Krassinski has elevated it to a high-concept survival principle. The film takes place in woods overrun by blind beasts that devour anything that attracts them with sound. Family life in this depopulated world is ordered around silence.
Our family has a neat symmetry: mother (Emily Blunt) and father (Krassinski), daughter and son. Through the speechless play and conflict, dynamics of resentment and distrust emerge. The daughter battles guilt, absorbing her dad’s sadness, and the son struggles to live up to his expectations. But there is a warmth in Krassinski’s world that implies these complications are weaker than the duty of care and love. Unlike other recent apocalyptic visions – The Survivalist (2015), It Comes at Night (2017) or We Are the Flesh (2016) – A Quiet Place doesn’t engage with any social unit greater than the family. We only meet one outsider, and his presence is brief, threatening and unpleasant. Krassinski is not interested in testing the limits of compassion or self-interest; family bonds have an absolute sacrificial quality that voids these questions.
Pregnancy and the promise of a messy birth and a loud baby hang over the second half of the picture. We’re miles from the self-conscious transgressions of Mother! (2017), where a baby is used as a kind of a crescendo to a bacchanal of bloody anarchy. And Krassinksi’s film doesn’t fall in the same nasty category as The Hills Have Eyes (1977), where the stakes are established when cannibals steal a baby. The characters here know they are bringing a child into a dangerous world. They know it’s a reckless thing to do. Nevertheless, when the baby comes, he gives strength to the mother, gives her a reason to stay agile, and establishes a new order among the family.
The interplay between sound design (some of which is overwrought), music and silence drives the suspense. In a moving early scene, the mother slips a headphone in the father’s ear, and they dance to “Harvest Moon”. The transition to music, to their subjective worlds, is deeply intimate, and a rare instance of a genre film giving its actors space and stillness. The function of quietude heightens your appreciation of the layers of sound to the point where ambient noises become atmospheric and dreadful. This sensitivity builds to the matriarchal finale, a satisfying rush of rhythmic editing involving screeches, a swelling distortion and the pump of a shotgun.