The Babadook, The Witch, Get Out, It Comes at Night, It Follows, Under the Shadow – the list goes on. The last few years has seen a flourishing of critically-acclaimed horror films using chills and thrills to explore themes of gender, race, sexuality, motherhood and more. The latest to emerge into this landscape is the doubly-successful A Quiet Place, riding high both in critical reviews and audience responses.
A Quiet Place is the first horror film directed by John Krasinski, starring Krasinski and his real-world wife Emily Blunt as a couple raising their children in a post-apocalyptic United States. The film’s conceit is strong from the outset. The world has been devastated by monsters sensitive to the slightest noise: accidentally smash a bottle on a pavement, and you will be snatched away and devoured by these beings. Survivors must tread quietly – literally; the family at the heart of the film put down sand on their regular routes and go barefoot to deaden their steps. The tension is ratcheted up even further by the pregnancy of Emily Blunt’s character – after all, neither birth nor a new-born baby are conducive to a quiet place.
As a horror-thriller, the film is astoundingly well crafted. Suspense is amplified by the use of well sign-posted sources of threat. As well as Emily Blunt’s heavy pregnancy, particular notice should be given to the use of a nail in a floorboard, which evinced a gasp in me the first time I saw it. Most of the film’s dialogue is in American Sign Language, and even that is sparse. This means exposition is limited, and instead of an overreliance on explanatory dialogue A Quiet Place is particularly cinematic in its use of visual cues and expertly wielded sound design. The film’s tension is also reinforced through consistently excellent acting, with especial credit due to Millicent Simmonds as the daughter of the family – noteworthy for being a Deaf actor cast as a Deaf character. This is a rare monster film in which the full revelation of the monster’s design does not decrease the scares. When the monsters are seen in full, they remain threatening and unsettling – to be feared, not laughed at.
Of the recent crop of critically-acclaimed horror films, A Quiet Place invites comparison with last year’s It Comes at Night, which similarly focused on an isolated nuclear family struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Unlike A Quiet Place, however, It Comes at Night reveals very little about the nature of the apocalypse, focusing instead on the conflicts that arise between human beings in survival situations and a state of scarcity. The threat in It Comes at Night ultimately comes from within the household – albeit with the intrusion of other people into the tight-knit nuclear family. The nuclear family itself is unstable, with its drive toward self-preservation presented as a destructive force.
A Quiet Place, conversely, presents a threat to the household that is very much external, literally alien. There are family conflicts, but these are based around miscommunications and misunderstandings, and are ultimately resolved by the love that unites the family. In contrast to It Comes at Night, the self-sufficient nuclear family is idyllic, aestheticized. When the aliens are not attacking, the house in A Quiet Place could be a collection from someone’s Pinterest board. The meal we watch the family eat has an Instagram-ready rusticity to it, and Emily Blunt’s clothes are clean, rural chic. There is no sense that living in a post-apocalyptic world brings much hardship or deprivation other than having to tiptoe around to avoid the circling monsters. There is no gritty struggle to survive as we might see in a film like The Road. Human beings outside the central nuclear family in A Quiet Place are scarcely witnessed, and they certainly do not represent the threat they do in It Comes at Night.
We do not need to embrace the Hobbesian nightmare of It Comes at Night, however, to question the ideological content of A Quiet Place. It is difficult not to be suspicious of a film in which an all-white American nuclear family, living in beautiful rustic self-sufficiency like mythic homesteaders of old, are threatened by monstrous aliens. This aspect is heightened by the lack of names given to the characters within the film; although they are named in the script and credits, the film presents them as nameless everymen figures.
John Krasinski has said A Quiet Place was intended as a metaphor for the fears and anxieties of parenthood. It is doubtful he intended his film to be inflected with the conservatism I see in it. Others have taken a different message from the narrative; reading it, for instance, as a film about being silenced by the current political situation in the United States. Although the film’s impact as a means of positively representing Deafness and its outstanding effectiveness as a thriller should not be discounted, I am uneasy with the elevation of the conventional family structure at its core. Seeing post-apocalyptic dramas engage with alternative families and human relationships rather than exploring human nature solely through the lens of the heterosexual nuclear family would be a significant and welcome change.
A Quiet Place is now showing in cinemas across the UK
Simone Webb is a PhD student in Gender Studies at University College London and aspiring film writer. She can be found tweeting about films and academia on @SimoneWebbUCL