The most extraordinary part of A Quiet Place doesn’t happen on screen, but in the theater. In an era of distracted viewing when cinemagoers often treat cineplexes as extensions of their living rooms, John Krasinski’s hushed thriller not only compels active viewing but rewards it—or make that active listening. In the movie’s near-future (it’s some time in the early 2020s), the Earth has been invaded by an alien species that relies on sound to target its prey, which means almost anything louder than a whisper can get you killed. The movie cheats its silences sometimes: There’s a score by Marco Beltrami and a scene where Krasinski’s character and his wife, played by Emily Blunt, split a pair of earbuds and dance to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” which fades in a little too desperately. But the movie, whose script is credited to Krasinski as well as Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, is admirably determined to stick to its (silencer-equipped) guns.
Krasinski and Blunt—their characters are identified in the credits as Lee and Evelyn Abbott, but their names are never spoken aloud—have three children, the oldest of whom, played by Millicent Simmonds, is deaf, and much of the communication between them takes place in subtitled American Sign Language. (Simmonds is deaf in real life and helped teach the other leads.) The movie is never entirely silent, because the world is not, but it makes you hyperaware of the sounds our daily lives often drown out: the soft pad of bare feet on ground (the family goes so far as cushioning the trails around their house with sand), the scrape of a can as it comes off a grocery-store shelf, the sharp creak of a floorboard that will be familiar to any parent who’s tried to creep past a sleeping child’s room or any teenager who’s tried to sneak past their sleeping parents. When the movie cuts to Simmonds’ point of view, those sounds aren’t replaced with silence, as they were during the sequences featuring Simmonds in Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, but by a dull, undifferentiated roar, as if someone had turned up a white-noise machine way too loud. The decision is probably partly tactical—moments of pure silence in a movie theater become an instant referendum on which person in your row is scraping at the bottom of his popcorn bucket—but for a hearing audience, it’s more effective than simply cutting the volume. You can still hear, but it feels like your ears don’t work.
Krasinski and Blunt are married in real life, with two daughters, and he’s built the movie’s premise into a story that’s not just about survival but about lineage. We only get as far as “Day 473,” which means it hasn’t been much more than a year since the aliens landed (which, if you read the newspapers pinned up in Krasinski’s command center, you learn was via meteorite, 1950s-style). But it seems as if humanity has been virtually wiped out, and what remains exists only in fearfully isolated pockets. When Krasinski goes to the top of his grain silo to light a signal fire—the cities, one assumes, were the first places to go—he’s answered by a handful of others in the surrounding hills, but there’s no suggestion that the survivors should band together or pool their resources. When so much as a stumble or an unguarded cry can mean instant death, there’s safety in avoiding numbers.
Given that premise, the fact that Krasinski and Blunt’s characters have decided to bear a child in the midst of an impending apocalypse seems about as plausible as a horror-movie victim striding into an unlit basement. A Quiet Place gives them motivation in the form of a family tragedy that takes place in its first few minutes, but it still feels almost homicidally negligent given that they still have two already-born children to protect. It’s hard enough to hush a newborn when you’d die for a full night’s sleep, let alone when it might actually kill you. Here, at least, the movie’s thematic concerns take precedence over logistical ones. At first, the parents are consumed with keeping their children safe: “If we can’t protect them,” she asks him, “who are we?” But as the children grow and the hope that help will arrive if they hold out long enough dwindles, their parents’ focus shifts to providing for what comes after them, knowing that “after them” could begin at any second.
A Quiet Place would have greater cumulative impact if Krasinski devoted more time to the family’s soundproofed existence and less to its action sequences. It feels like the movie is about 70 percent climactic showdown, with little time to let the feeling of living in a world without sound sink in. (A sequence in which the family sits down to dinner and, after clasping each other’s hands in prayer, scoops their food onto leafy plates, has a faint whiff of Jeanne Dielman’s attention to the quotidian. I could have done with hours more.) But there are moments when the movie takes us firmly by the hand and escorts us down a darkened path, and they lead to one of the most profound of communal pleasures: the sound of a movie audience screaming as one.