How 'A Quiet Place' Leans In to Horror's Oldest Pitfall
[This story contains minor spoilers for Paramount's A Quiet Place.]
The hook for the new horror film A Quiet Place is evident from its title: The mostly self-contained story is all about keeping quiet in the face of hideous, blind monsters who are attracted to prey that makes any kind of loud sound. A Quiet Place has only a handful of actors, including Emily Blunt and John Krasinski (who co-wrote and directed the film), working within this attention-getting premise. Krasinski is capable enough behind the camera to mount tension with the inherent creepiness of characters being unable to speak lest they get eaten. However, when A Quiet Place goes to the old faithful cliche — jump scares punctuated by loud noises on the soundtrack — the pic stumbles.
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Real-life married couple Krasinski and Blunt play husband and wife in A Quiet Place. When the film opens, they've got three kids, but after a vicious attack by one of the monsters in a pre-title sequence, they have only their eldest daughter (Millicent Simmonds) and a son (Noah Jupe) with them in a farmhouse in the woods. After a year of the monsters devouring anyone and anything in earshot, this stoic family survives through caution: Though they walk around their house and visit the local pharmacy, they've paved a specific path with sand to minimize the sound of their feet on the ground; they play board games like Monopoly, but do so with makeshift pieces of fabric, instead of clunky metallic game pieces; and so on. The majority of the action takes place over two days when the four family members (almost five, as Blunt's character is very pregnant with an upcoming due date) go on separate journeys around the house, only to face off against the monsters.
The premise of A Quiet Place is novel, as is the pic's willingness to eschew spoken exposition about the inexplicable, terrifying monsters. (Whatever details we get about these creatures is visual, primarily through newspaper clippings that the father has collected as he's tried to gain knowledge about whatever weaknesses they might have.) Unlike other big genre films that start minimalistic before getting more expansive, such as the 2007 sci-fi movie I Am Legend, A Quiet Place rarely wavers from having its protagonists speak only through American Sign Language, in part because the daughter is deaf. Outside of one tender scene between the parental units of this family, there's not a single scene in the film where the spoken dialogue rises to the volume of a normal conversation.
However, A Quiet Place, for all its willingness to break tradition with a lot of other horror movies, is vastly more reliant than it should be on one of the most familiar tropes in the genre: the jump scare. Technically, the film doesn't have the laziest version of this jump scare — when a character is startled by something only to realize that it was just a cat. This time, it's a raccoon, in an early moment when Krasinski's character fears that one of the creatures is just outside their window. (To his credit, a few minutes later, seen only by the audience, said raccoon is captured and killed by a creature offscreen.) There are a lot of these kinds of scares throughout the film, a fair chunk of which feel like fake-outs, such as when one character startles another by grabbing their wrist. This style of scare isn't a terrible thing in and of itself, but when it's the only type of terror, that's a bit of a letdown.
It's especially a letdown because much of A Quiet Place treads carefully between being genuinely emotional and just manipulative, often landing on the right side of that balance. The relationship that the father has with his daughter, framed by the death at the film's opening, has a payoff that's both expected and earned, in no small part because of Krasinski's natural charm as an actor. Blunt's character is more housebound, but her side of the story not only puts her through an emotional wringer, but also allows for the film's best/most disgusting moment. (It involves a stray rusty nail.) And both Jupe and Simmonds have a natural, unforced quality, never leaning toward overly big or unnecessarily emotive reactions.
Krasinski, in promoting A Quiet Place, has said that he wasn't always a big horror buff. This movie, though, suggests that he's done his homework, for good and ill. A Quiet Place has a unique-enough premise, high enough emotional stakes and even a distinctive and weird villainous force. Much of the film works, as a tense little B-movie-style thriller. Yet the style of jump scare throughout the 90-minute movie is one of the oldest, least satisfying tricks in the book. A Quiet Place is best when it's quiet, and overly predictable when it's trying to startle its audience into submission with loud noises just for the sake of being loud.
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