Friday, 6 April 2018

Review: A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place (Thematic Spoilers)
Cert: 15 / 90 mins / Dir. John Krasinski / Trailer

I can't work out if a film whose entire marketing focus is based around the deadly seriousness of keeping quiet actually attracts noisy cinemagoers at a subconscious level, or if I just notice them more as a result. Let's go for both options, and the unrealistically optimistic suggestion that concessions staff - if only for the duration of this film's release - brush up on their delivery of the phrase "Look, you can have the tickets and drink at an absolute push, but no, I'm clearly not going to serve you bags of sweets, popcorn or anything else you can use to create an extraneous racket. Now get in there, sit down and shut the fuck up…".

And so April brings John Krasinski's A Quiet Place to our screens, the horror/thriller in which he*1 and Emily Blunt play Lee and Evelyn Abbott, parents of a young family existing on mid-western farmland in self-exiled isolation after a race of unnamed monsters has hunted humanity almost to extinction. The creatures are hideous, animalistic, vicious but crucially blind, tracking prey by their enhanced sense of hearing. From what we see, the species managed to destroy civilisation before it developed any method of counter-attack. The Abbotts meanwhile have taken to living a life of almost complete silence, communicating to each other via the sign-language which they already know as their eldest daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is profoundly deaf. Every day is a struggle for survival, with the slightest generated sound attracting the hunters from miles around...

And damn, this is good. Krasinski understands the need for tension throughout the movie, not just in 'the setpieces'. There's relatively little downtime, reflecting the lifestyle to which the family have become accustomed, and the rare moments of relaxation are still framed with the unasked question of how long they can possibly last. Much like The Ritual, A Quiet Place isn't necessarily bringing anything new to the genre, but its a film made with enthusiasm and precision.

While it quickly becomes apparent that the monsters in the story aren't just metaphorical, their reveal is teased out gently in the style of 1980s b-movies. Additionally, there's no burst of exposition between the second and third acts letting the audience know how all of this came about*2 - we just have to pick up the pieces organically as the story progresses, which lends a refreshing realism to the script. The film is so painstakingly taut that you'll hear the entire audience wince as a character walks barefoot toward a floorboard with a protruding nail.

Story-writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck seem to have followed the Rian Johnson approach to character development, continually asking "right, what's the worst possible situation we can put these characters in?", not in a way which delights in watching them suffer, but certainly one that makes them work to earn any shred of security they might find. And in any other story, the family happening to know sign-language because one of their children is deaf could feel conveniently tacked-on. Here, it adds its own drawback since Regan knows to be quiet, but can't hear other sounds which could attract the enemy anyway.

With a relatively small cast, John Krasinski and Emily Blunt have a lot of heavy-lifting to do, but they both carry this off with ease*3. Huge credit also goes to Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe as their children, trying to lead lives as normally as possible while being near-permanently terrified. All of their performances lend further weight to Krasinski's skills in translating the story for the camera.

In addition to my opening snark above, it's also not lost on me that I frequently criticise contemporary horror for being reliant on the 'Quiet/Quiet/BANG' technique, yet that encapsulates everything which A Quiet Place is about. That said, the film does stray into a pitfall with Marco Beltrami's score. His music is an apt and atmospheric addition to the proceedings, but follows standard operating procedure by falling off prior to A Scary Moment, telegraphing to the audience that they're about to get some payoff. This is the equivalent of having the director standing underneath the screen flashing a torch onto a sign saying "watch this bit!", and the rest of A Quiet Place is far better than that. It would perhaps have made for a more interesting edit to remove the orchestral soundtrack altogether, with the viewer experiencing the events as the characters do, and with fright-cues from the acting and sound design alone.

Speaking of which, the brittle audio is crucial, here*4. The vast majority of the 90 minute film's communication takes place through sign-language, subtitled for the audience and occasionally accompanied by a barely-audible whisper to aid lip-reading. However, there are two sections featuring conversational-dialogue. For obvious reasons, this can't occur normally, and the scenes we get are fairly brief and fairly subdued. The sequences act as tension-breaks, as much for the audience's benefit as the characters. But I can't help feel that A Quiet Place would be a much stronger work if it had done away with these completely. Imagine the challenge and reward of a mainstream horror movie with no speech at all, reliant on performance, cinematography and editing. Where the characters are forced by circumstance into upholding the film's title. Imagine a film that doesn't patronise or spoon-feed its audience or characters, but where separate subtitled screenings for hearing-impaired viewers wouldn't be necessary. Maybe the studios think that would be a bit arthouse, I dunno.

But neither of the above caveats derail the film in any way, and everyone involved in this production can be immensely proud of what they've made.

As a straight-up creature-feature, A Quiet Place is masterfully crafted. Perhaps not all it could be, but certainly head and shoulders above the rest of its class…

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Think the utter dread of Aliens, and the best moments of George Romero's zombie-works.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is.
But ideally with as few fellow patrons in attendance as you can manage

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It won't be a movie you'll want to watch often, but it's definitely going to be worth having on the shelf for when the mood takes you.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
We shall watch John Krasinski's directorial career with great interest.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
I shouldn't imagine so.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: So, John Krasinski's name is all over this and he was in 2006's Dreamgirls, along with John 'The Voice Of Yoda In The Empire Strikes Back NPR Drama' Lithgow.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Yeah, John Krasinski is directing the film and he's in the film. And he also part-wrote the screenplay (albeit not the story itself). That level of behind-the-scenes involvement is not usually a good omen for any work, and I was ready to walk if I saw John reaching for an acoustic guitar so he could knock out the theme tune, too. Luckily (in fact, understandably), this didn't happen.
[ BACK ]

*2 There's the thought that the audience doesn't get the full origins-tale of the creatures because that's not known to the characters we're following - the kids in particular. But the story isn't being told exclusively from the kids' point of view, and we definitely don't get the full social-background that the parents are sure to know. But the best part is that this doesn't matter - A Quiet Place focuses on the here-and-now of the Abbott's situation. [ BACK ]

*3 It feels like it's been too long since Emily Blunt has been great in something, yet The Girl On The Train was only 2016, with Sicario the year before that. Although between those we had The Huntsman: Winter's War, and I can't help but feel that's been a heavy blow to Blunt's usually-great track record... [ BACK ]

*4 Although when Evelyn pops half her headphones into Lee's ear so they can share a moment and have a slow dance, surely it would make more sense for the music to only come out of the speakers on one side of the auditorium? Is it just me that sees couples sharing earphones on the street or train and thinks 'well, that looks unbearable for more than five seconds...'? [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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