Remember those times when you were a little kid and you would be asked by one parent to carry a mug of coffee or tea to the other?
Full of trepidation, you would walk slowly but surely, eyes locked firmly on the mug, each step a study in intense coordination and carefully planning, your breath drawn in, not a word spoken as you gave everything to making that the task at hand was completed without a single messy, noisy mishap?
If you can reach that far back into your memories, and remember how tense and all-consuming those moments were, you will go a long way, in all seriousness, to understand what it is like for the family at the heart of Jon Krasinki’s directorial debut, A Quiet Place.
Set in the aftermath of the arrival of a swarm of blindly (literally) aggressive predatory alien species that has all but denuded Earth of humanity – there is no expositionary deadweight at the start of this film, penned by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and John Krasinski himself, with judiciously-dropped tidbits filling in enough blanks for narrative satisfaction – A Quiet Place draws its deceptively-placid title from the need to be totally and utterly quiet at all times lest you die in a furious welter of limbs, claws, teeth and pincer arms.
Just how quiet you need to be, how profoundly well you need to channel your nervously-concentrating inner five-year-old is made horrifyingly and shockingly clear at the start of the film when we meet the Abbott family noiselessly padding through the looted remains of a chemist in search of medicine.
Evelyn and Lee (Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, a real-life couple) are looking for drugs for the older of their two sons, Marcus (Noah Jupe) while younger son Beau (Cade Woodward) happily runs up and down the aisles, watched over protectively sister Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who has to intervene more than once to stop her much less careful sibling from making the kind of racket that would doom them all.
Shoeless and word-less, the family communicate with sign language, initially necessitated by Regan’s deafness but something that has become pivotal to their survival.
Everything about their lives is circumscribed by the need to be as silent as possible – sand is laid-out on every path they walk on, whether it’s the trail between town and the isolated farm they live on, the use of leaves instead of plates, the covering of every surface with decibel-deadening cloth.
It is a very quiet existence but despite all that, the family is doing their best to carve out a life out of a now-virulently hostile world where one false sound can bring death in fast-motion down upon you.
Everything seems relatively bucolic until a family tragedy upsets what little is left of their familial apple cart, leaving the Abbotts as emotionally-wounded as they could be physically if they forget for even a moment that they are now prey and little else to the alien interlopers, who pleasingly, are used sparingly to build a mounting sense of near-overpowering dread.
The genius of this masterful work of psychological horror is that not only do the monstrous villains of the piece appear only in sudden rushing moment of adrenaline-filled instinctual fury, their appearances caught only on the periphery or in the harrowing before-and-after moments, but that focus is squarely on the family themselves.
Every single member of the family is given ample time to grown and develop as living, breathing, fully-formed characters, a rarity in the horror genre where stock-standard characters are usually grist for the bloody mill and little else.
The monster of whatever stripe is usually the thing, but in A Quiet Place, which seethes with meditative threat and barely-coiled terror, we see the tremulously-quiet surrounds of this apocalyptic world from the vantage point of a family who want to do more than just survive – they want to be, as Krasinski describes it, “fully-formed, fully-thinking people”.
It’s a fraught undertaking given the fact that one tiny noisy slip, and there are a number of them in this cleverly-written, superbly well-acted film, could spell the doom of any one character, or all of them.
But even in amongst terror so palpable you could slice it with a knife, the deep mothering humanity of Evelyn, now dangerously pregnant (why “dangerously”? What do babies make a lot of? Yep … UH-OH) with the couple’s fourth child, compels her to fight for the sanctity and safety of her family.
Lee is on board for the whole more-than-survival gambit but his role is that of protector and equipper, his love for his children fiercely real and apparent – except to Regan who like most teenagers feels estranged from her dad – leaving the nurturing to Evelyn who is unwilling to let the alien bastards take her or her family without a fight.
And for her that fight is more existential than physical … until, of course, it isn’t when in the final act all hell, inevitably, breaks loose.
In a lot of other horror movies, of course, the denouement is a bloody fiesta of torn body parts and copious loss of life as characters you barely know or care for are tossed aside with a narrative casualness that belies their workman-like construction.
But A Quiet Place, like Get Out before it, is a class apart, a studied, intelligent exploration of what happens to people, and specifically a family, when their bonds of love are put under the crushing weight of an extraordinarily stressful situation without parallel, and without any kind of map to guide them.
It’s wholly uncharted territory, and while the family has an advantage at the start with their habitual use of sign language, they are in the same boat as anyone else when it comes to day to day survival, or rather living because Evelyn won’t accept anything less, through this most muted of apocalypses.
By focusing on the family and not the menace that encircles them, terrifying and riveting though that is, A Quiet Place gives real humanity and substance to a story where the scary monsters are the catalyst for all kinds of familial machinations and not simply a frightening end in themselves, a refreshing change for a genre that is often guilty of getting things completely the other way around.
It’s emblematic of a skillfully-wrought film that eschews many of the genre’s more vacuous tropes, dangling your finely-balanced nerves over the precipice again and again until you come close to cracking; but beyond the tension and sudden shocks – don'[t be embarrassed, your fellow audience members will be leaping skyward out of their seats right along with you – and they are there aplenty with well-judged and supremely well-executed timing, you come face-to-face with humanity in the midst of the bleakest of days and realise how powerful and enduring the bonds of love and family can be in ways that Hallmark has never even come close to representing.