Saturday, April 20, 2024

‘A Quiet Place’ Is A Tense and Emotional Horror Melodrama

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A Quiet Place is a breath of fresh air of a horror movie. It is also a deeply personal experience for myself, and I imagine, others as well. Most horror movies exploit our fears and anxieties as a way to interrogate them. Often times if a character has a disability of some sort, it will be exploited either for cheap shocks and or lazy metaphors.

The horror genre lends itself to a sort of bare bones style of film making. John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place is no exception, though I expect its budget is a little higher than the average horror film. Like Signs or Grindhouse, it knows how to play the audience. But unlike most horror films, the character with a disability is who we are meant to empathize with and whose existence isn’t cheaply or shallowly portrayed. Her deafness isn’t a shorthand for anything other than her deafness.

Krasinski and his co-writers, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, give us a gripping family melodrama smuggled inside a simple, yet effective horror movie. In other words, it’s about the people not about the monsters. In a post apocalyptic future, society has crumbled due to the sudden appearance of monsters who hunt by sound. The earth has always been a noisy place but with the advent of technology, I imagine it’s gotten almost intolerable. So when a race of creatures who have seemingly either giant ears or multiple ears appear, they are more than a little bit cranky.

Krasinski uses the monsters to explore the cracks that form within a family under this kind of stress. Not to sound corny but A Quiet Place, while nail biting and physically intense, is also one of the more tender movies in theaters right now. The horror and the anxiety are tools for Krasinski as he demonstrates, how no matter the circumstance, people are people.

The beginning of the film is eighty nine days into the apocalypse. We see the Abbott family in an abandon store hunting for supplies. We are introduced to the characters and the world simultaneously and both are done with astonishing confidence and subtlety. Notice how quiet and tense the moment is as Evelyn (Emily Blunt) searches through the pharmacy for her son Marcus (Noah Jupe) who is on the floor behind her. Marcus is covered in sweat and his face is scrunched up in obvious pain. Evelyn searches the bottles of pills meticulously, rushed, but not knocking anything over.

Immediately, we are made aware as to the importance of being quiet. We aren’t sure why it’s important—only that it is important to these characters. Lee (Krasinski) gathers food as his daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) watches over the youngest Beau (Cade Woodward). As they get ready to leave, Beau has a toy he’s found. Lee quickly takes the toy and gently removes the battery. Just when we’re about to wonder how on earth these people communicate Lee begins to use ASL (American Sign Language).

The fact that the Abbotts know ASL is believable because Regan is deaf. The Abbotts are uniquely suited for this kind of apocalypse, having already a form of silent communication. But, as a deaf person myself, I can also confirm they have an added weight in the fact that Regan can not hear or gauge the volume of herself or the things around her.

Movies are very rarely ever truly silent, and if they are, it is not for long. What we construe as silence is actually not silence but the appearance of silence. A Quiet Place plays with this and with us in such a way that we become absorbed within the movie’s own desire for silence. We ignore gnawing questions and find ourselves rooting haplessly for the Abbott family.

You may have noticed I have barely touched on the goings on of the movie and this is by design. I will say that a tragedy happens at the beginning  whose emotional consequence echoes throughout the entire story. The story behaves like a row of dominoes falling over all culminating to a climax that is as tense and breathless as any part of the movie. A climax where a hearing aid is the resolution both narratively and emotionally.

It is this part of A Quiet Place that moved me to tears. Regan, as I said, is deaf. She has a cochlear implant which is a type of hearing aid device. It’s a hearing aid with a wire and a magnet that connects to the side of your head. It bypasses the parts of the ear that are damaged and instead stimulates the auditory nerve directly. It’s the apocalypse and so when her hearing aide breaks down, she has no way of replacing it. Movies set in a post apocalypse world never really address or explore the hurdles people with disabilities must face. We see people in wheelchairs without any real acknowledgement of how difficult it must be moving about a desert or crumbled city when most things are not wheelchair accessible.

When I saw Regan’s cochlear implant, I felt a wave of emotion come over me that I can’t rightfully describe. It’s the same thing I felt when I saw the little brother in She’s All That. Simon Birch has a scene where Simon places his hearing aids in his shoes while he goes swimming, something I have done countless times but had never seen anyone else do; especially in the movies. The same feeling came over me when I saw Gene Wilder scream “I’m f***ing deaf!” at Richard Pryor in See No Evil Hear No Evil. Now and days we call it “being seen” and it’s hard to put into words the emotions that come boiling to the surface when it happens to you. But when a movie does “see you” it feels as if a thunder clap has gone off inside you.

Before leaving to go fishing with Marcus, Lee gives Regan a new hearing aid. She refuses. “It never works!” she signs. The beauty of the moment is the misunderstanding by each of the character. Regan believes her father is just trying to make her less of a burden. She feels guilty about her role in the tragedy. Lee, however is desperately trying to show his daughter that he loves her and trying to help her feel less like a burden.

The moment is important because it is the crux of what A Quiet Place is really about. It’s about parents and kids trying their best to show one another their love. Everything else is window dressing.

Millicent Simmonds is good not just because she herself is deaf. She is good because Simmonds is a supernova of a talent. Simmonds was far and away the best thing about Todd Haynes flawed but gorgeous failure Wonderstruck; and she is here as well. 

After Lee leaves Regan tries the hearing aid. The camera observes her from a slight distance as she puts on the hearing aid. It moves closer as she turns it on and once again is faced with silence. Her anger and frustration is something you can portray if you’ve never felt it. But it will have a hollowness to the moment, your ignorance of the reality will shine through. Simmonds plays the moment with a brutal searing honesty.

Simmonds is charismatic and effortless as Regan. Being a teenager helps when playing a teenager but she has a way of forcing the audience to connect with her. A Quiet Place is her movie, though others may be great as well, it is Simmonds who will stay with you long after the lights have come up.

Part of the shock and surprise of A Quiet Place is that nothing about John Krasinski’s career is anything like what he does here. Comparisons to Jordan Peele’s Get Out are easy, but inaccurate. Peele’s Get Out is a debut; it’s technical and structural mastery, made even more astounding by that fact. A Quiet Place is Krasinski’s third movie, his first horror movie as a director, and unlike Peele, he is a novice of horror films.

Krasinski and his cinematographer Charlotte Bruss Christensen never let us get a full on look of the monsters until the very end. A brilliant choice if only because the monsters aren’t the point. Christensen and Krasinski allow the actor’s face to be a special effect all its own.

When Emily Blunt’s Evelyn goes up the stairs after doing laundry; the laundry bag gets caught on a nail on a stair. Chekov’s nail demands that if we see a close up of a nail on a staircase that it plays a vital if inconvenient role later on. Seeing the nail the first time you begin to cringe almost in anticipation.

I cried, I screeched, I held my breath, and I squirmed. Horror movies, like fairy tales, are reflections of our hopes, fears, and anxieties. They exist not just to tell us monsters exist; but to tell us that the monsters can be defeated. Many horror movies don’t care about the characters within their frames but A Quiet Place does.

Image courtesy of Platinum Dunes

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