Non-verbal acting is how John Krasinski made a name for himself. In his breakout role on The Office, his character would routinely break the fourth wall, staring silently into the camera to express his frustration, amusement, and terror. His expressive face serves him well in A Quiet Place, a horror film that has limited spoken dialogue. Krasinski’s hands are all over the film: He directed it, produced it, and co-wrote the screenplay. He takes a simple premise—a post-apocalyptic scenario where monsters can only hear you—and achieves impressive levels of suspense and dread with it.
It is a long time before anyone actually speaks in A Quiet Place. That is not a problem, since Krasinski conditions the audience toward an existence that values silence. Krasinski is part of a tight family unit: Emily Blunt plays his wife, while Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe play their daughter and son, respectively. Their daughter is deaf, so the family knows sign language. And since the monsters will attack based on the slightest sonic provocation, their silent communication is the key to surviving long after most of the population was wiped out.
Aside from constant vigilance over the monsters, preparations are underway since Blunt’s character is pregnant. It seems ill-advised to bring a child into a world where sound guarantees death, and yet the family has a plan. Their plan goes to shit, as it must, and the film’s climax follows them through one crisis after another.Small, elegant details of production design are what makes A Quiet Place so immersive. The entire family walks barefoot on sand to muffle their footsteps. As husband and wife, their only romantic indulgence is to slow dance while sharing iPhone ear buds in one ear each. This family does not need to be strong characters since Krasinski ruthlessly puts them in situations that engage our sympathy. One character accidentally steps on a nail, immediately covering their mouth since they dare not scream. We feel for these characters the way they might feel for a pet: Since they cannot speak, our imaginations are in overdrive over what they must be feeling. The monsters themselves are ghastly enough, but in the classic horror tradition, they are most effective when they are barely seen.
Audience participation is another key element to the film’s success. Like the characters, no one will dare make a sound during A Quiet Place. Some people hold their breath, clench their armrests, and resist the urge to scream. Krasinski internalizes how the movie-going experience can be shared, and half the fun is how he plays with expectations. If there is some smart-ass who think it is funny to yell at the screen, you will be extra justified when you tell them to shut up. When there are so many streaming options and films are available on video in a matter of months, it is terrific to have a film that practically demands a communal, borderline interactive experience.
The film’s biggest tension is not whether the family will survive, but what sacrifices they are willing to make. It is no spoiler that Blunt’s character will go into labor before the film is over, and to his credit, Krasinski keeps the newborn’s fate ambiguous. Do they want to add to their family, or do they want to spare a child from a life of silent terror? If A Quiet Place has any grander themes, it is about how parents fear failing their children. In the film’s few passages where dialogue is spoken, that is the only topic under discussion. Krasinski does not see A Quiet Place as allegory—the conversations only add subtext to future character decisions—but it is hard to fault him for abandoning grander ambitions. The film is too ruthless and scary for that.
Like many other horror films, A Quiet Place falls apart as you leave the theater and think about the premise. If any sound triggers the monsters, for example, what happens when the family goes to sleep? Surely one of them must snore. On top that, Krasinski relies on a musical score that telegraphs one too many emotional cues (there must be a director’s cut that has no music whatsoever). But for a lean 90 minutes, no one will have a moment to consider such detail. They will be too busy staying quiet, covering their mouths and eyes, in utter fear of what will happen next to this devoted family whose biggest problem is they are not too loud, but too optimistic.
A Quiet Place opens Friday in theaters everywhere.