'A Quiet Place': Film Review | SXSW 2018

A thrilling, genuinely scary high-concept hit.
4/6/2018

Hungry monsters eat anything that makes a sound in John Krasinski's third outing as director, in which he co-stars with wife Emily Blunt.

A terrifying thriller with a surprisingly warm heart, John Krasinski's A Quiet Place is a monster-movie allegory for parenting in a world gone very, very wrong. A couple with kids in real life, Krasinski and Emily Blunt here play parents in a world where even the slightest noise can lead to sudden, violent death: Training their children to be self-sufficient without making a sound is as unique a challenge as, well, let's not waste the time explaining what in 2018 America might feel like a plague of revolting, apocalypse-creating monsters, because even moviegoers who don't accept the metaphor are going to have the pants scared off them. Third time's the charm for Krasinski in the director's chair, as commercial success is all but guaranteed.

Opening with a card that reads "Day 89," the movie finds our unnamed family gathering provisions in an upstate New York community that has become a ghost town. As they sign to each other — the daughter is deaf, and presumably, knowing sign language helped them keep each other alive as their neighbors were killed — we learn that the spidery creatures who have wreaked havoc have exceptional hearing. Being blind, that's the only way they can locate things to eat. Two parents and three children start the long walk back home. In a beautifully staged, heartbreaking scene, one of the children makes a mistake and is killed.

A little over a year later, Mom is pregnant. Who would bring a child into this world — and how would one even manage labor and delivery quietly? A soundproofing scheme is being planned, though no one is eager to find out if it works. The four live in an Edward Hopper-ish farm house with a big red barn and corn silos next door. The camera notes clever adjustments they've made to turn life's volume down, and, in an early clattering mishap, we both learn how intense the danger of discovery is and get a quick hit of already-needed comic relief.

Scenes of what passes for ordinary life let the screenplay focus on Mom and Dad's attempts to educate their son (Noah Jupe) and daughter (Millicent Simmonds) while never letting them forget how dangerous their lives are. One thinks of what we hear from parents of black boys, raising them to be normal and happy but hyper-vigilant about the way they are perceived by others.

Blunt is a loving mother who can't help but whisper just a tiny bit as she encourages her son to be brave; Krasinski's expressive eyes are especially well suited to expressing the depth of his concern for them. On the two or three occasions when he finds ways to bring full-throated voices into the picture, Krasinski milks them for emotional impact.

Lest this sound too warm and fuzzy, understand that things are about to get incredibly violent, and stay that way.

Down in the basement, Dad's keeping track of what they've learned about the monsters; trying to communicate with the outside world via Morse code and shortwave; and making repeated, failed attempts to fix the hearing aid connected to the girl's cochlear implant. His failures on the last front prompt adolescent sulking from the daughter, though we come to understand there's more going on there. Each member of the family feels deep guilt about her brother's death — "who are we if we can't protect them?," Mom weeps at one point — but the girl feels it in a special way, and it leads her to wander off from the house at a very bad moment.

Obviously, Blunt's character will go into labor before the movie ends. But that's just about the only predictable thing here, and the film finds ways to turn even that into a surprise. Things start when the family members are scattered throughout the area, unable to help each other, and we get our first good looks at the exceptional creature design of these monsters, whose heads open up, petal-like, to reveal huge, intricate ears and rows of sharp teeth.

The ordeal Mom endures in a house alone with a beast would suffice to make this a crowd-pleasing horror film. But things are barely getting started, and the ways Krasinski and his collaborators find to ratchet up the tension are sometimes so surprising they provoke shocked, appreciative laughter. The final third is a thrill ride whose relentless action beats make just the right pauses for emotional effect.

You might have to go back to Jeff Nichols' 2011 Take Shelter to find a film that has used the fantastic this well to convey the combination of fear and responsibility a good parent feels. They're completely different films — that one a long psychological simmer, this one a sense-teasing, rolling boil. If only it were this fun being terrified in real life.

Production companies: Platinum Dunes, Sunday Night
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe
Director: John Krasinski
Screenwriters: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski
Producers: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller
Executive producers: John Krasinski, Celia Costas, Allyson Seeger, Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, Aaron Janus
Director of photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Production designer: Jeffrey Beecroft
Editor: Christopher Tellefsen
Composer: Marco Beltrami
Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Headliners)

95 minutes