“Is there anything quieter—or scarier—than silence?”
(WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS)
Memorable performances, impressive pacing and one of the most effective uses of sound in recent memory would all be notable for me when it comes to discussing A Quiet Place, but it is the films attention to detail that might be its most stunning accomplishment.
When it comes to the films attention to detail here are three things that stood out for me:
- Using trope to stretch the boundaries of a familiar genre
John Krasinski of The Office fame doesn’t have an extensive or memorable filmography attached to his name (The Hollars hardly made much in the way of noise), but A Quiet Place is certainly proof of his potential as a director in demonstrating restraint and building tension behind the camera.
We can see this restraint and recognize his ability to build tension in the decision to take what is at its heart a story driven film and re-imagine it through the lens of the horror genre, a decision that allowed him to tell this story in a very particular way.
And yes, it is a film that that includes plenty of horror tropes, but the most noted thing to me was that it could easily do away with these elements and still exist as a compelling film.
Further, because this film is not dependent on these tropes to do what it sets out to do, Krasinksi is free to play around with these horror aspects in way that is refreshingly self-aware and intentional. He takes a simple concept, the idea that if you make a sound monsters will eat you, a concept one could argue is not entirely original to a genre prone to these sort of elements and jump scares (last years It Comes at Night and the previous years Don’t Breathe come to mind as fair comparisons) and breathes into it complex themes and heartfelt drama.
Take the nail scene for example.
When we first see the nail we know exactly why its being introduced into the scene. We know that eventually someone is going to step on it. And yes, in one of the films more memorable moments Emily Blunt’s character (Evelyn) eventually does step on this nail in a very convincing fashion (I am still recoiling from the image). But here is where Krasinksi demonstrates a unique skill as a director and deviates from the trope itself. Rather than simply move on to the next scare he makes the decision to leave the nail in play. The brilliance of this decision is while the nail never really ends up impacting the story again in a purely physical manner, simply being in play lends a measured emotional weight which adds an invited sense of urgency. As we move up and down this stairwell with different characters leaving and entering the basement and passing vicariously by this protruding nail, as viewers we are left at a heightened state of awareness, and Krasinksi uses this heightened awareness to key us in on the narrative movement that the nail sets in play, namely the separation and growing chaos that is threatening to tear this family apart.
It is also worth noting that what adds to the brilliance of this decision, and Krasinski does this a lot over the course of the film, is that he is able to use a single trope (like the nail) to set in motion an elevating and intensifying state of sound, tension and chaos. As she steps on the nail we see Blunt’s character spiralling towards an intensifying climax all predicated on her ability to stay silent in such a circumstance (the woman has just gone into labour for crying out loud… which is what I would likely be doing in that same circumstance, not going in to labour but crying out loud). And it leads us towards one of the craziest birthing scenes I have ever seen delivered (pun intended) on film followed by her subsequently being trapped in the basement with one of the monsters, her life and the life of her family literally in her hands.
And all of this happens while outside of the home each of the other characters are spiralling into an equal sense of chaos at the same time.
This move from controlled and predicated normalcy and towards uncontrolled chaos is what Krasinski is looking to evoke and portray in A Quiet Place, and he does this by using the tropes of a genre to achieve it. This is where the sound and silence becomes more than a singular concept and grows into a compelling metaphor and an active player in the story.
- Using sound and silence as a storytelling device
Again, conceptually the story revolves around a family forced to live in silence in order to avoid being hunted by these mysterious creatures which are extremely sensitive to sound. Silence, then, becomes the means by which Krasinski is able to use this surface horror element, one predicated on an element of horror or fear, and infuse this into a narrative that on a deeper and more complex level is ultimately about family and responsibility to one another. A narrative that begins as a simple premise based on the methodical control of ones environment and circumstance which gets thrown further and further into a sense of uncontrolled chaos for fear of these unnamed monsters, is able to allow that chaos to bring these thematic moments to the surface in a meaningful way, and it all happens through the art of sound and silence.
For Krasinski, sound and silence in A Quiet Place is expressed on three levels:
– Conceptual– the means by which the film is able to achieve its jump scares
– Technical– the way the film uses silence and sound as a cinematic device
– Thematic– both contextualized into the post-apocalyptic setting and an acting metaphor for the characters themselves.
On a conceptual level, the silence easily could have become a gimmick, a way to earn a few scares and represent itself as another genre film. A good one albeit, but nothing necessarily original. It is on a technical and thematic level that the film stretches these boundaries and turns the art of sound and silence into a storytelling device that feels wholly original.
Take the score for example. Set in minor keys that feel just slightly off of centre, we are able to note the way that the score moves in and out along with the films specific narrative movement. In most cases, when considering horror tropes, the music is what awakens us to the danger lurking around the corner. It predicts the jump scares and readies us for an emotional response. In A Quiet Place we begin with silence… eerie silence. Unsettling silence. It offers us this sense that nothing has survived in this environment through a complete absence of background noise and nature. The jump scares are so effective in A Quiet Place because they breathe out of this silence. And if you pay close attention to the score you can recognize that the music and sound responds rather than predicts these tonal and emotional shifts, narrowing us in on the characters themselves rather than the scares.
In this sense, each sound in the film arrives with a sense of immediacy, urgency, purpose and context. From small, sudden accidental noises to massive sonic explosions, each noise arrives as a deterrent, a response or a distraction that tells us something about the characters and the larger metaphor of the story. Take for example the old man grieving the loss of his loved one. The scream that pierces this scene evokes a sense of desperation, pain, futility and remorse that is rather stunning when we consider we only just met this individual a few seconds ago. This momentary sound also becomes the image through which we are able to interpret Krasinki’s own break of the silence through his character later on in the film.
Or take the story of the daughter (played by the absolutely wonderful Millicent Simmonds). Pay attention to the way the sound and the direction moves with the shifting perspective of her deafness. When she puts on the hearing aid her father made for her and takes it off it, the act is felt through the noise and the silence that captures this moment on screen. In one particularly frightening scene we are allowed to see the threat standing behind her while her on-screen character and perspective remains completely deaf to it. It plays to chilling effect.
The silence also plays a role in dictating the family’s means of survival. The effort and attention Krasinski gives to imagining every day activities in the light of silence is incredible. The silence then becomes expressed through the most innate details and background visuals- eating on Kale leaves for example, or marking off the floor so they know which boards creek and which don’t. And I love that we don’t spend any time watching them actually create these ways of living, they simply exist in the world we are being asked to inhabit with them, a function of their perceived and assumed adaptability. In fact, it is the way Krasinski is able to consistently answer possible questions of what it might look like to actually live in a world of silence that allows us to relocate any questions we might have about how this world might or could work as a marvellous feat of creative cinematic accomplishment. The effort and attention to detail works to draw us in rather than leaving room for us to question it.
And finally, as I move into a discussion of the films narrative, on a thematic level the silence plays a significant role in determining the films hopeful resolution and redemptive arc. Krasinski made this film to express the fears of parenthood that he experienced himself, and to discuss the ways in which family can help us learn to live with purpose in the midst of these fears, and the way family can help us see beyond our fears by giving us the opportunity to invest into the lives of others without condition. He simply uses the silence and the apocalyptic environment as a way to imagine the every day reality of this experience, this relationship, in an imaginative way.
- Family, Fear and the Fight to Live Beyond the Tropes
The opening scene perfectly captures the desolation of the landscape contrasted with the picture of a family, whom we are first introduced to through images of unnamed feet shuffling through the isles of an abandoned grocery story. What this opening scene does is establish the hopeless reality of their world along with a calculated and determined decision not to simply just survive in this world, but to actually live.
This is also what we see in the picture of the rocket that the youngest boy so desperately wants to hold and to play with. A simple desire for the chance to be a kid. The chance to play with a toy like any normal child would have in the world that once was. This is followed by the pain of a father who realizes he has to take this opportunity away from his kid, and then lastly by the love of a sister who desperately wants to give that chance back to her baby brother.
See it through this lens and this whole sequence becomes a tear inducing moment of humanity.
The opening scene also stands as a picture of longing and of hope in a larger sense. This rocket is a symbol of what lies outside those doors, the unnamed monsters that threaten the worlds existence, unknown monsters that seemingly came from somewhere and whom we only get to know through posters and writings in the background. It is also a symbol of the families survival, and the survival of every other family that might be out there, the idea that wherever the monsters who destroyed their world came from, there is a way to freedom and the promise of new life.
While the opening scene evokes these very clear pictures, it also reveals the way this family has decided not simply to escape this world but to make it their home. For whatever the monsters have taken away, they cannot take away their sense of family and the opportunity to redeem the here and the now.
Which is precisely the moment Krasinski chooses to pull us into the films main source of terror and tension. As we see the younger boy’s life suddenly taken by the monsters in a horrifying but spectacularly rendered sequence, the certainty and safety of this family unit is thrown into question. The system the parents had built to protect their children can no longer be trusted, and thus the idea that the world is unsafe but that they are stronger together is thrown into a slow progression of disarray and chaos. The single decisions of this moment are destined to haunt them and hold them each personally responsibility for what happened, a reality that essentially begins to pull them silently and slowly apart.
– The daughters choice to give her brother a little bit of happiness.
– The mothers choice not to carry her son
– A fathers inability to know what was happening in time to save him.
And so the daughter feels responsible for the death of her brother, believing that her father will forever hate her because of it. The mother feels lost in her inward turmoil and haunted by what she perceives to be her failures as a mother to protect her child. The father feels like he can no longer protect his family and thus becomes consumed with trying to consumed with trying to fix the problem on a superficial level.
All of which leads to the decision to have another baby.
This has been decisively one of the more divisive moments in the film for general audiences. Why would they decide to do this? Is this not irresponsible? Stupid? Unbelievable? Unforgivable even?
I have read some comments of those who loathed this film because of this singular decision.
And yet this single decision is what breaks the silence of their isolated grief.
This single decision symbolizes the truth of who they are together and the reality of the life they are living apart from one another.
This single decision moves them out of a place of mere survival and back towards living as a family again.
The fires they light every night. The routines, methods and means of making it through the day, the pictures still hanging on the wall, the ways of bringing back to their life every day, normal functions like eating together and playing games together. The picture of them sitting around the table in silent prayer. They are desperately trying to find a way to be a family, to hold onto their sense of family, and all of these things become beacons of hope in a film filled with not just with silence, but with darkness. With the new birth this hope becomes realized. It becomes an expressive statement of resistance to the ruins of their world, an insistence that the monsters will not defeat them and that their family will find a way to move forward together. And it all flows out of one of the most intimate and beautiful moments in the film, a moment between husband and wife in which touch and dance and closeness says more than words ever could (also one of the more beautiful uses of music and sound in the film).
The birth speaks to the one thing that looms larger than the monsters in the story- the way loss and grief can rob us of hope. The scene is not arbitrary or a cheap trick, it carries a deep sense of purpose and meaning. It is the way they settle, rebuild and move forward in the face of the monsters. It uncovers why they are still around all these months later. It uncovers the real determination of the father’s time spent in the basement, in isolation. And it is what ends up bringing the family back together, most notably and importantly binding back together the father-daughter relationship that has been lost under the physical and emotional silence.
The birth then is not just a symbol of hope, but a reminder of their brokenness. This is a film being held hostage not to monsters but to their pain.
There is a crucial moment by the waterfall where the silence is finally broken in an audible way, if only temporarily. And it becomes a moment of clarity about where this family is at. Each drowning in unspoken pain. And it directly connects us to later in the film where the mother and their new baby are caught behind the “waterfall” in their home while separated from the rest of her family.
One moment defined by sound and the freedom to finally be able to speak. The other defined by the threat of silence and the inability of the mother or child to be able to speak in light of this new birth. In both cases this is a symbol of the divide that the silence creates and the freedom they have in breaking the silence by coming back together as a family.
And eventually it is this unspoken relationship between the father and the daughter that does pull the family back together. Whereas the death of their son pulled them apart, the death of the father does the opposite. Where the daughter holds herself responsible and worthy of her fathers hate and rejection, the father demonstrates his love in a true moment of sacrifice, one which stands in stark contrast to the old mans sense of futility and hopelessness earlier in the film.
And what becomes revealed in this act of love is that the fathers love has been persisting over all this time, undying and unbroken, simply unspoken and disguised by the silence and fear of the world around them. All of his work he was doing was for the sake of his daughter, his family, and it ends up being the very thing that not only brings them back together but allows them to move forward and rebuild in his physical absence.
It’s a heart wrenching realization and powerful thematic development for a film that could be measured merely against its tropes. And it is a moment that invites each of us, parent or not, to wonder about the choices we might make in the face of such circumstance. The power of silence as metaphor is that the anxiety and fear of bringing a child into the world is a direct reflection of the lives each of us live in the every day. And the questions it evokes is, does hope loom larger than fear? Does freedom loom larger than anxiety? Does love loom larger than words? And how, when we measure the ways this fear and anxiety builds walls and divides our sense of family and our decisions and ability to move forward (also in the larger sense of community), might we respond to opportunities to break this silence and fight back against fear and anxiety?
One of the sound designers (Erik Aadahl) said about A Quiet Place, “For a film where humans must be silent to survive, the goal was to make an audience lean in and become afraid themselves to make a sound.”
In a truly redemptive sense, the film also invites us to learn to live again as well.