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SXSW Review: ‘A Quiet Place’

A nerve-shreddingly tense creature feature elevated above its genre peers by its unapologetically potent humanist streak, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place opened the SXSW Film Festival on a decided high note.

Unmistakably the work of a filmmaker fascinated by the trials and tribulations of parenthood (to such a degree that Krasinski cast his wife, actress Emily Blunt, with whom he has two children), the film focuses on a couple (played wonderfully by Krasinski and Blunt) struggling to protect their young from the creeping nihilism of an inhospitable reality. In the dystopian hellscape of A Quiet Place, hordes of skittering, sharp-toothed monsters have hunted humanity to the brink of extinction, quickly zeroing in on their prey with a sense of hearing so heightened that stepping on a creaky floorboard could constitute a death sentence. Knowing that the slightest noise could bring these terrifyingly lethal creatures down on their heads, the couple has taught their children to maintain silence at all costs.

Such a lifestyle is far from easy; Krasinski pulls few punches throughout A Quiet Place, but he opens it with what’s potentially its most harrowing scene. Following a title card that reads simply “Day 89” (of what, it’s at that point tantalizingly unclear), the film finds the family scavenging for supplies in a devastated part of upstate New York.

As they sign to communicate – it’s implied that knowing ASL because of their young daughter’s deafness has helped keep them alive – the bottomless love Krasinski’s survivalist father and Blunt’s nurturant mother have for their three children becomes readily apparent. They begin the walk back home, shoeless so as to soften the blows of their feet against the ground, when their youngest and most naive accidentally triggers (what else?) a toy space shuttle with lift-off sound effects. In a gut-wrenching, masterfully handled moment, he’s butchered in front of his parents, who can only look on in silent horror. There is no room for mistakes in this world, no matter how small.

Cut to a year later: Blunt’s mother is expecting a child, and Krasinski’s father – devoted though he is to her and his family – knows full well what a dire dynamic this will create. A child of a few years can be taught to remain silent, but a newborn? And that’s to say nothing of the strain placed on the mother, forced to give birth without a sound. Determined to protect them, he attempts to soundproof a basement delivery room, all the while grimly aware that he’ll only get one chance to test it.

It’s no wonder Krasinski was attracted to this story, originally a micro-script by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (he later rewrote it, drawing on influences like Alien and Jaws, classics that upped their scare quotas in part through clever character construction, as he mentioned in a post-screening Q&A). The story consistently finds ingenious ways to complicate its protagonists’ already-precarious living situation without ever appearing to tack on insincere issues for them to deal with. What makes A Quiet Place so grimly effective is how unforgiving its setup proves to be, and how many everyday difficulties (How do you alert a child to an impending danger without calling to them? What happens when everyone’s separated and tasked with somehow finding one another again?) present themselves as skin-of-your-teeth escapes from the salivating jaws of certain death. The sheer inventiveness of this narrative cannot be overstated; ditto for the heart-in-mouth thrills induced by such sights as a nail inadvertently spiking out from a basement staircase or the clattering kernels in an old grain silo.

Krasinski, coming from a background in character-based dramedy (2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” 2016’s The Hollars), has flagrant, who-would-have-thought-it talent for tension-building, and he turns the screws on his characters with care and precision, especially once that troublesome newborn begins to make its way into the world.

Beyond that, his camerawork does much to organically flesh out the film’s dangerous world, from its flitting glances at newspaper clippings in Dad’s makeshift office (“It’s sound!” screams one newspaper headline from the quote-unquote old days) to the latent potential clamor of pill bottles on a pharmacy shelf. Outside of a few instances in which its setup begs unanswered, niggling questions, A Quiet Place is resoundingly clever, a lean and surprisingly mean genre workout that shifts effortlessly between scream-inducing horror (the number of good jump-scares in this movie is off the charts), much-needed comedic relief (though, crucially, never at the expense of the film’s rough-hewn, bleary-eyed realism), and thoughtful, character-driven drama (the kind that augments the terror by wholly investing you in this family’s improbable survival). That the film works as brilliantly as it does is also a testament to the four-strong cast, which also includes Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds, both incandescent young stars in the making; Krasinski’s most impressive sequences weave between each family member as they’re faced with their own soul-crushing obstacles, only barely overcoming them with the canny survival skills their shared dedication to loving and protecting one another has forced them to develop.

When the monsters do appear – instead of skulking around the edges of the frame, just audible enough to chill the blood – it’s perhaps inevitable that the gut-twisting tension their unknown nature instills is released, just a little. Their design, somewhere between the H.R. Giger-esque vagina-dentata subversions of Alien and the haunting, possibly ancient nature-as-nightmare underpinnings of Jurassic Park, is sufficiently chest-tightening, but nothing in the CGI magic that brings them to life provokes as much terror as the dust falling loose from a ceiling, or the deceptive stillness of dark water in which these creatures can lurk. Krasinski knows this. And until the hyper-violent third act, he exercises impressive restraint in keeping them largely off-screen without ever letting the threat they pose fade from the audience’s mind.

In crafting A Quiet Place, Krasinski has made – as all the truly great horror filmmakers do – a few things at once. His film is a razor-sharp, take-no-prisoners siege thriller in the vein of Sam Peckinpah’s sweat-soaked bloodbaths, the central family consistently confronted with the threat of invasion, shortly followed by slaughter. It is an aural and technical parlor trick, a gratifying treatise on what can be accomplished at the movies by stripping away the ingredients we’ve come to expect from them and (while retaining placement in the mainstream) reworking them into something more stimulating. And, perhaps most importantly for this family-man filmmaker, it’s an existential dissection of identity and legacy, one that repurposes the apocalypse as a crucible in which the bonds of fatherhood and family can be put to the ultimate test.

It’s only in their testing, the director is saying, that the humanity native to such dynamics can be understood, its power appreciated. Who will we be at the end of the world? What will the danger no one sees coming do to us when it arrives, as it always will? Who will we be if, even then, we cannot protect our own, our children? There’s more than a little Cormac McCarthy in this Quiet Place, a stated fascination with carrying the fire – even through darkness that promises to be endless. Because is anything really, truly endless, if that family – and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth it symbolizes – can be preserved? Maybe. But maybe not. “A Quiet Place” feels like a very personal triumph for Krasinski, translating the anxieties every father must face in cinematic language more layered and intelligent than any that audiences had known to expect from him. It will – and should – mark his arrival as one of Hollywood’s most exciting new genre talents.

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