Civilisation has fallen. Blind monsters roam the wildlands and haunt the cities, hunting for prey with their ultra-sensitive sense of hearing. Holed up in an isolated farmhouse and surrounded by monsters, a family of farmers must use their wits to eke out a living. Things come to a head when the mother becomes pregnant, forcing the family to prepare for and endure the longest night of their lives.
Welcome to the world of A Quiet Place.
Sound is the Enemy
A Quiet Place is the quietest movie I’ve ever seen–including actual silent films. Characters communicate mainly through sign language and eye contact. Dialogue is reserved for critical moments, in places where they are sure the monsters can’t hear them. Background music is minimalist, underscoring key sequences, and usually absent. For most of the film, there is nothing but background noise: the whistling of a distant wind through a dead city, the rustling of leaves and papers, the growl of a nearby hunter.
Where many blockbuster films use bombastic sound tracks and overblown sound effects, A Quiet Place uses silence for dramatic effect. The enforced silence trains the viewer to prick their ears and listen for even the slightest sound, the way the humans and the hunters do. Any loud noise jars the viewer’s senses, allowing them to feel what the characters feel, drawing them into the world of the film. The movie establishes early on that sound is the enemy, and constantly reinforces this concept. Any noise louder than a spoken word is swiftly punished by a monster’s appearance, forcing the humans to act deliberately and think swiftly.
Likewise, the minimalist dialogue forces the reader to pay attention to the significance of what is being said, be it a radio hail, a brief moment of tranquility, a promise to protect the children. No names are ever dropped throughout the movie, with the children only ever being referred to as ‘he’ and ‘she’. With just four characters, the movie pays exquisite attention their relationships, their challenges and personalities, making them come alive through deeds instead of words.
The theme of sound being the enemy hits home for me. I have extremely sensitive senses, including hearing. Any sound louder than spoken conversation is unpleasant, if not outright painful. Right off the bat I could sympathise with the characters’ situation and understand the choices they made to minimize sound. It’s in the little things, from using sign language and eye contact to slowly shifting things around, taking care to avoid stepping on dry leaves to walking barefoot.
Unfortunately, the enforced quiet of A Quiet Place may have unpredictable effects on the viewer. Unlike other films, there is no sound or music to mask background noise most of the time. Thus, I could hear everything around me in the theater: viewers fidgeting in their seats, someone noisily opening a plastic bag, the sharp crunch of snapping potato chips. It got so intense that I had to wear my earplugs–not as a defensive measure against the movie, but against the viewers.
It’s probably not an issue for most people, but it was certainly annoying for me.
Acceptable Breaks from Reality
Mistakes are part and parcel of horror films. It’s a quick way to show that characters aren’t perfect, while ratcheting up drama and tension as the antagonist exploits the mistake for their ends. Unfortunately, stupid mistakes are extremely common. These include deliberately evoking a demon as part of a prank, choosing to stay in a house haunted by a hostile spirit even though you can leave any time, charging into a dangerous situation without at least trying to call for backup. Idiot plots like these spoil the movie experience, because most people aren’t stupid enough to do something like that, and that the entire movie demands that everyone acts like an idiot.
A Quiet Place doesn’t suffer from this flaw.
The characters do everything they can to avoid drawing attention to themselves. They don’t fight the monsters head-on, for the monsters are too fast and too strong. The monsters are portrayed consistently, with powerful physiques and hearing but lacking eyes, allowing the humans to outwit the monsters. The humans act in character with the knowledge they have at that time, making their mistakes feel genuine–like a deaf girl not knowing that an object can make sound–as opposed to acts of an idiotic plot. It’s a rare enough occurrence in the movie industry that this deserves credit all by itself.
With that out of the way, the movie still has to make some breaks from reality before it can exist.
Scavenging textbooks, manuals and technology from the ruins of civilisation is important to survival. The climax of the film depends on it–and the opening scenes follow a trek into the city to pick up medicines.
But that’s not how reality works. In a rapid collapse of civilisation–as we can see in Venezuela–the first things to go are food, water and medicine. There wouldn’t be bottles of pills just lying around in an abandoned pharmacy. Either looters will cart them away or the pharmacists would stockpile them elsewhere. The pills exist simply to give the family a reason to go into the city, setting up the true shocker in the following minutes.
When the characters finally speak, they can be heard clearly, even though they are whispering softly to each other. This is a concession to the viewers. Having gone for long periods of time without speaking, I can attest that prolonged silence profoundly affects your ability to speak and articulate words. I found that my words slurred, my voice roughened, and my enunciation flatlined. But the film can’t have viewers wondering what a character just said, so dialogue has to be crisp and clear.
Most of all, the movie’s set-up is fatally flawed. Newspapers in the film indicate that humans have figured out that the monsters hunt by sound shortly before the downfall of civilisation–and that the government has abandoned the survivors to their own devices, if indeed there is any surviving remnant of the government still alive. The monsters are so heavily armoured, bombs and bullets don’t work.
But since they know that the monsters hunt by sound and can’t see, it becomes trivially easy for a ruthless military to destroy the monsters. First build a sturdy shielded structure housing a source of gamma radiation and a noisemaker. Emplace the trap in the middle of an empty field, activate the noisemaker and raise the shields. A few weeks later, return to clean up the bodies.
If’s that’s too slow, replace the gamma radiation with tactical nuclear weapons. Or chemical weapons. Or huge bombs.
It’s not fully explained why the government can’t or won’t help, or why the military can’t do anything. But for the purposes of the movie, it’s enough to establish that the family is cut off and no help is expected to come, ever. This makes the family’s struggles appear more believable, their failures more bitter, their victories sweeter.
Viewers should not expect a happy ending. Actually, they shouldn’t expect any kind of ending. At the climax of the film, the monsters’ weakness is finally exposed, but more monsters are swarming on the farmhouse. The characters grimly prepare to defend themselves, and the movie cuts to credits.
This is the part I hated the most. And yet I understand why the moviemakers did it.
The movie is one long, drawn-out tale of struggle and survival, of evading and outwitting the monsters instead of directly confronting them. Stand-up battles are hopeless; the monsters are too strong. The only thing the humans can do is outsmart them.
Tension, suspense and fear color every scene, especially the scenes when the monsters (first) breach the home. Choosing an ending in which the family successfully slaughters the monsters will change the entire tone of the movie, from fear and dread to guts and glory. Likewise, an ending in which everyone dies renders all their previous struggles pointless, showing that not even human ingenuity can save them from the monsters, which would leave a bitter taste in the viewers’ mouth.
Perhaps this is just my personal taste, but as the characters discovered the monsters’ weakness by film’s end, the logical conclusion would be to exploit this and clear out the monsters from the surrounding area, and in doing so lay the seeds of hope for a better tomorrow. Such a victory would have been earned from everyone’s hard work, preparation and sacrifice in the early scenes, and so it would not feel out of place.
The Quietest Film
A Quiet Place is easily the quietest movie I’ve ever seen, and takes full advantage of its enforced silence for dramatic effect. While it has a number of breaks from reality, none of them are gregarious mistakes that fatally undermine the film after it gets going. Its biggest issue is that it doesn’t have a definitive ending. If you can look past these flaws, though, A Quiet Place lies up to the hype of being one of the best modern cult horror films.
If you like this review, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.