Following the Leader
By Kelley Dong
A Quiet Place
Dir. John Krasinski, U.S., Paramount Pictures
John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place transpires over two to three dreadful days. On a rural farm in the middle of an empty cornfield, the Abbott family fortifies itself from arachnid aliens with super-sensitive hearing that have overrun America, devouring anyone who dares to make a peep. Leading the group is patriarch Lee (John Krasinski), a built and bearded mountain man who towers over his pregnant wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), deaf daughter Regan (Wonderstruck actress Millicent Simmonds), and son Marcus (Noah Jupe). The Abbotts have an elaborate system of codes that dictate their every move, like rolling dice on carpets and stepping on painted floorboards with bare feet to prevent creaking. The guiding principle behind these commandments is that everyone must remain silent at all times. The repercussions of breaking this rule are loud and clear: in the film’s opening sequence, their youngest son (Cade Woodward) is eaten by an alien, punished for playing with a clamoring toy rocket. Traumatized by his death, the family is overcome with guilt and shame, and their grief manifests as diligent, communal survivalism dedicated to keeping the family close. Though the children are trained and the house is covered in surveillance cameras, the glass will always be half empty. The Abbotts have not been killed... yet.
John Krasinski—who cowrote the script with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck—cuts deep into the universal fear of losing loved ones to a danger beyond comprehension. But the fear factor of A Quiet Place hinges upon its audience’s attachment to the nuclear family, and a whole-hearted belief that one day the precious unit will be under siege, if this is (according to some) not already the case. Alone to themselves, the Abbotts occupy a cozy rural utopia in which the father is the head of the household, shielding his wives and children from alien forces. Glimpses of patriarchy are often subtle: Lee walks at the front of the line to lead the family across a bridge, and he and Marcus do not cook, instead waiting for Evelyn and Regan to prepare their meals and invite them to join once the table has been set. Yet implications of Lee’s sexism are presented without critique. One afternoon, Lee trains Marcus to fish so that he may provide for his mother. Lee bars Regan from joining without ever explaining why, and forces her to stay home with Evelyn. Regan’s disobedience catalyzes the film’s downward spiral. Fed up with her father’s favoritism, she runs away, leaving the door wide open for the aliens to enter. With Lee and Marcus gone fishing and Regan out in the woods, the abandoned Evelyn tiptoes through the house in search of a place to hide, just as her water breaks. The following events consist of a time-sensitive four-part operation: Evelyn must alert the family, the Abbotts must return home to save her, Evelyn must give birth, and then the family must reassert their territory against the alien intruders.
These monsters, or “dark angels” as they are referred to in the magazines and newspapers scattered about the Abbotts’ surroundings, are fleshy grey spiders with the heads of Xenomorphs. Video game fans may also recognize these beasts as resembling the metallic, multi-legged Chryssalid alien from the XCOM franchise. What most differentiates Krasinski’s extraterrestrials—one of which is the director in a motion-capture suit—from a Xenomorph or a Chryssalid is their predictability. These creatures fall short of their alien ancestors’ evolutionary capacity for always staying one step ahead of the human race. In the basement, a large white-board states all there is to know about the creatures: they’re blind, armored, and hear very well. Without any twists or surprises, the scariness of the aliens dwindles, weakening the intended hide-and-seek thrill of the film’s second half. At the same time, A Quiet Place’s sound design—the work of sound editors Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn—helps to raise the terror by amplifying diegetic sounds, like the slow tapping of spider legs as they creep across the hardwood floor.
A Quiet Place’s foremost device and scare tactic is its silence, which also serves as its central metaphor for repression. By way of Regan, the family is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), which constitutes a majority of the film’s dialogue (the accessibility of A Quiet Place for a deaf or hard-of-hearing audience is not perfect, since audible exchanges aren’t captioned and signing is occasionally out of view). With so few humans in their vicinity, it appears that signing has raised the family’s chances of survival. For viewers unfamiliar with ASL, its presence in the film also encourages an active focus on typically overlooked details of body language. In close-ups, cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen draws our attention to the Abbott family’s bodily responses to their frightening circumstances—wide watery eyes, clenched jaws. The best of these come from Emily Blunt, whose exhausted limping and kind, sullen eyes strikingly display the perseverance of a mother who must not only live for herself but also for those who rely on her nurturing energy.
A Quiet Place sporadically shifts from one character’s hearing abilities to another. Editor Christopher Tellefsen cuts off all sound to mark Regan’s subjectivity, much like Mike Flanagan’s 2016 home invasion horror flick Hush, about a deaf author who lives alone in the woods. In casting a deaf actress rather than a hearing one, A Quiet Place is more sensitive to its subject matter than Flanagan’s film, which is rife with inaccurate signing and treats deafness as both a debilitating crutch and a perverse superpower. In A Quiet Place, Regan’s deafness is neither extreme. It occasionally limits her from comprehending the loudness of certain objects, but also provides the family with a language, and later proves useful in killing aliens. However, her character never fully manages to transcend Krasinski’s template. Regan is the only family member who does not fully love Lee, and her rebellious nature suggests that the aliens are not the only source of dysfunction; but these hints and traces are insufficient substitutes for a personality distinct from the family. At one point, while Lee teaches Marcus about the secrets of sound, Regan wanders off to her youngest brother’s memorial, letting her slip out of the story and our consciousness until she is called home once again.
The underutilization of Regan feels especially off-putting because of the history of horror cinema as a space for the marginalized to articulate alternate forms of power, their status granting them the upper hand against the currents of normalcy. Instead of centering on Regan, A Quiet Place dedicates an excessive amount of attention to Lee, its least vulnerable figure. A descendant of Mel Gibson’s Graham from M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002), Lee is the family’s captain, hunter, fighter, technician, and scientist. In the basement, he monitors security footage and builds cochlear implants for Regan. Meanwhile, Evelyn does the laundry and teaches the children to read. This division of parental labor appears to be equal, but ultimately Lee is the Abbotts’ only hope, as evident in the parents’ repeated assurances that “your father will always protect you.” In comparison to Lee’s fatal flaw (loving his family too much), Evelyn, Regan, and Marcus are crudely defined by their personal shortcomings—too pregnant, too cowardly, and too defiant. Even Lee’s greatest strengths are meant to accentuate his family’s weaknesses, like his ability to prevent accidental noises. When Lee is present, he goes out of his way to pour sand on paths to soften the family’s footsteps and snatch loud objects from his clumsy children. But whenever he is not there to cover his family members’ mouths or clean up their messes, the aliens take advantage of his absence. A Quiet Place’s convincing case for patriarchal leadership owes much to its technical efficiency. With a minimalist premise and little backstory, the film leaves few choices but to fervently trust Lee as the only one prepared for the unknown.
Midway through the film, Lee and Marcus arrive from training to the front yard of their alien-infested home, with Regan still absent. They notice the red light bulbs that Evelyn has switched on as a distress signal—one that only her family would recognize. But going in to rescue her requires precision, so Lee devises a plan that gives way to the film’s most compelling and poignant scene: as Marcus launches red, white, and blue fireworks into the night sky to distract the aliens, Lee bolts across the cornfields to protect his wife, entering the house with a rifle in hand. To the screeching strings of composer Marco Beltrami, a tracking shot of Lee is intercut with a chilling overhead shot of Evelyn, who crawls into a bathtub and agonizingly gives birth. (One may recall a similar moment from Robert Zemeckis’s Allied, in which the pregnant Marianne goes into labor amidst a bombing raid). Here, in less than ten minutes, A Quiet Place presents a transfixing and lucid fantasy borne from a protective paranoia, and its propagandist properties—at once a tribute to the American flag, guns, patriarchal sovereignty, and women’s commitment to childbirth—are so potent that its later attempts to deconstruct these ideas feel disappointingly tenuous.
In Christlike fashion, Lee sacrifices himself to the aliens to save the children, leaving the remaining Abbotts to fend for themselves under the direction of Evelyn, who picks up a gun of her own. Krasinski’s abrupt swerve into the “final girl” trope—Marcus is still alive; but a shot of Evelyn and Regan brandishing their weapons suggests that they are the “final” mother and daughter—is intended to reverse the Abbott family structure by placing authority in the women’s hands. Though the sight is welcome, it fails to compensate for the pair’s overall lack of depth amidst the masculinist fantasy of the film’s first half. Krasinski’s regressive inclinations in such an ostensibly forward-thinking film are puzzling when held against the works of the genre’s masters, including Krasinski’s contemporaries. For instance, the late Tobe Hooper dedicated a number of his works (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist) to exposing the consequences of the nuclear family’s adherence to hierarchy. Just last year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out—which John Krasinski named as an influence—depicted an older suburban variation of the white Abbott family as orchestrators of racist serial killings. Though it bears the markings of a gut-wrenching horror film, A Quiet Place is stubbornly optimistic about the existing order. The destruction of human agency spreads all across Krasinski’s postapocalyptic America, but its most haunting form of oppression remains at home.