Take a moment, and close your eyes. Do you hear the tires as they roll across the pavement? The pound of a car door closed? The rumble of your washing machine, the buzz from your fridge, your television playing another episode of the Handmaid’s Tale. The strangers walking outside, and the passing words from their conversations gone by?
Now, imagine if that was all gone?
If mere sound alone could kill.
John Krasinski‘s A Quiet Place, a film for which he directs and stars in, is such a sound.
The film opens with the Abbott family, as they quietly peruse an abandoned supermarket. While they skulk around in their bare feet, it’d be easy to exclaim at the silence (with no spoken word dialogue, the family communicates mostly through sign language), but Krasinski develops more than an atmospheric sonic landscape. As the Abbott’s youngest child approaches with an electronic toy rocket, we see on their faces the abject fear of their very vocal chords.
A Quiet Place follows the Abbott family as they’re hunted by creatures who track their prey by sound. The creatures, visually, are a mix between Alien and Demogorgans, while bearing an audible resemblance to Predator as well.
Throughout, the use of diegetic sound is stunning. A Quiet Place‘s soundscape is placid, as we hear rushing water from a stream, footsteps on sand, the ease of a floorboard as your weight sinks into it. The calm, especially in a modern world, is disquieting. A cruel irony as such an existence would seem tranquil. Yet, there’s a primordial fear. An anxious heirloom passed down from our ancestors: a fear of the quiet dark and the silent woods. The film dances and plays with that shared terror, sonically arranging the shrieked attacks of the creatures with a serene baseline. The calm and high pitch squeal combine for horror’s greatest bequeathed gift to us: the jump scare.
Nevertheless, Krasinski is just as interested in sight as in sound. Often the characters’ faces are obscure in shadow, their full bodies out of focus. The subtraction of our sight, is also displayed in the voyeurism of the camera as we squat behind staircases. Krasinski intends for us to possess the same eye-sight as the creatures, very little. And much like them, our aural faculties are not inhibited. We can hear just as well as these hunters, pinging like sonar to every frightened breath, to the tick-tick-tick of a timer, to a baby’s whimper. In short, we are the creatures.
Our obscured vision is perpetuated by setting, as well, as the Abbott’s farm is surrounded by the woods and corn. Have you ever tried to navigate through a corn field or dense trees? Both have generally been used in horror films because of their solitude and their subtraction of sense. Their lost and claustrophobic feeling causes our nerves to upend at their roots.
And yet, the film’s emotional core is as a family drama. Krasinski and screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck do the difficult task of connecting us to these characters. Which is no small feat because we are avail to few spoken words.
But the difficulty does not lie in the lack of verbiage, but in our prohibitions.
We’re an ableist society, often fearful of the “arduous” journey that comes with empathizing with the deaf.
We believe it difficult or aesthetically imposing to read subtitles, lacking the very empathy for the person sitting beside us in the theater as we command for fictional characters like Regan (Millicent Simmonds).
In A Quiet Place, it doesn’t matter if the mother (Emily Blunt) and father use sign language with their children, they still have the same wants and fears as other parents. The children, Regan and Marcus (Noah Jupe), are as innocent, emotional, and scared as your kids. We’re never detached when a creature stalks them. Instead, we jump and shout, “Oh no.”
That intensity of emotion springs from their family dynamic, demonstrated in their dinners, or their playing of Monopoly, or their expressing of mournful regret. It also comes from the Abbott’s relationship to their children, reminiscent of Bicycle Thieves (spot the subtle reference when you watch next). As they display the same primal fear as Antonio Ricci has when he searches the bustling streets of Rome, the same fear as any parent, as you and you, the fear in knowing that you can’t protect your children or family.
And yet, when A Quiet Place is complete. When the woods are not something to be scared of. When their home is sunk into the ground. When the shrieks have dissipated. When the calm and silent soundscapes no longer exists. With their faces in full focus. We find that we never viewed the family as sign language users, only as people to be protective of. Only as people to empathize with. Only as us.