I worry about the world.
There’s nothing especially noteworthy about that. The world is a big. Life is scary, and the only definite fact about it is that it will end. There’s plenty to worry about just on a day to day basis.
But those general anxieties have only been amplified in the time since people around me, my friends and family members, began starting their families. Bringing children into the world. I have two nieces who I love more than anything in this life, and yet for all the delirious joy that goes into seeing them grow and learn and become people, there is in tandem an escalating terror over what this big world and this scary life will have to offer them. The terror of what kind of world they, and the children I myself hope to have, will come to inherit keeps me up at night. Is all we have to offer them nothing more than a desolate, choked rock? Empty of green things, purged of life?
I did not expect a PG-13 horror film directed by Jim Halpert to be one of the first recent works of art to deal with this particular concern head-on, but there you go.
A Quiet Place’s hook is simplicity itself: Monsters hunt by sound. Make a noise, you die.
To elaborate a bit: The film follows a family trying to survive in the months, and eventually years, after an invasion by some kind of extraterrestrial beings, creatures that have apparently impenetrable skin but no sight, instead relying on their incredible hearing to stalk and kill. As A Quite Place opens, the world appears to have been almost entirely emptied out already. The Abbott family unit of mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), father Lee (John Krasinski, who also co-wrote and directed the film), daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), elder son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and youngest child Beau (Cade Woodward) survive by keeping to the margins and leaving as little a trace as possible.
Even as careful as the family is, even the slightest mistake can have lethal consequences, a fact that Krasinski illustrates with brutal clarity in the film’s stark, wordless cold open. Something as innocuous as a little boy playing with a toy is enough to ruin everything, and the entire film following that moment comes to us through a haze of grief and loss.
But along with throwing down the gauntlet in terms of just how far Krasinski is willing to go with his horror, this sequence provides the underpinning of tension that will run for the remaining 90-some-odd minutes of the movie.
All it takes is one slip up. One mistake. And once that happens, death arrives. It’s not a question of innocence. It’s not a question of fair.
And in this world, Evelyn and Lee are faced with one all-consuming question: Can our children survive this?
That gives the film its second engine of tension. The first is, of course, “holy shit a monster is trying to stab me oh no I do not approve of this run run run.” And that, you know, that works just dandy.
But the other kind of tension is more subtle and is hardly ever given explicit voice to; not that anyone in the film does much talking anyway, but you get my point. You see it in the limitations Lee places on Regan. You see it in the way he attempts to ease the traumatized, terrified Marcus into a greater understanding of his responsibilities as hunter-gatherer. In these moments, what drives Lee is not the matter of surviving this day or this week, but whether or not his children will be able to survive when he is no longer there to guide and protect them.
“Who are we if we can’t protect them?” Evelyn laments at one crucial moment when the parents are separated from both the kids, and what passes unspoken between Blunt and Krasinski in that moment is the awareness that no parent can protect their child forever. The world is just too big, filled with too many cracks to fall between. You do the best you can, you try and impart all the wisdom and readiness you can, but at a certain point a child has to exist in this world on their own, and there’s nothing that can be done to prevent that.
(Sidenote: Indeed, I think one of the film’s few missteps is leaving Evelyn alive at the film’s end. The central metaphor would have been better served if Regan and Marcus were truly, truly alone for the final confrontation. But, in the moment, it’s hard to argue with seeing Blunt get to exercise some of her Full Metal Bitch badassery, especially after she spends much of the film as a bloodied punching bag).
Horror is often spoken of as a place where you can safely deal with real fears in a fictional confine. A Quiet Place marries the propulsive, instinctual terror that’s hooked into the collective human lizard brain from the time we huddled in caves away from the yowls and howls in the night, with those more existential ponderings. How do you know that your children will be able to carry on through a devastated world? How do you know that you’ve done your job, and that they will be OK with whatever gets thrown at them?
Those anxieties I talked about up top, they roll in like waves, usually not lasting too long. I’m just not a person wired for a nihilistic outlook. My nature is to err on the side of belief in human will to fix things, solve puzzles, survive.
With A Quiet Place, Krasinski illustrates a similar kind of optimism. Even something as tragic as the death of Krasinski’s own character takes on a double meaning when seen through this thematic light. Regan has spent over a year holding herself responsible for the death of poor little Beau, wracked with guilt and convinced that her father blames her just as strongly as she blames herself. Lee, in his final act on earth, tells Regan that he has always loved her, and then alerts the stalking creature to his presence, giving Regan and Marcus a head-start to escape.
In one gesture, Lee not only absolves Regan of shame over the past, but expresses faith in her future after spending the movie restricting her movements, barring her from certain rooms and certain aspects of the family’s survival. By giving himself up, with no clear guarantee that he is doing anything besides buying them a few extra seconds, Lee finally recognizes in Regan the capability to survive in this world without him.
A similar faith is expressed just in the idea that Lee and Evelyn would have another baby, a set-up that drives many of the most white-knuckle moments in the film’s second half. And on the one hand, yeah, it’s really damn stupid to have a baby in this sort of environment. But there’s something so beautiful about the idea of a family going through that kind of trauma, experiencing that kind of loss, and pushing onward with new life in spite of the risks, in spite of the grief. That the Abbotts choose to continue loving and living and working towards tomorrow, even in a situation where just getting through each day without dying is an achievement, that in and of itself expresses a sense of humanity and hope that may not often be found in horror, but exists all throughout human history as we have responded to and rebuilt from those traumatizing moments that left blighted scars across our species.
There are wonky elements in A Quiet Place, to be sure. The monsters, for example, are as wonky as such beasts tend to be when you try to marry sci-fi premises with fairy tale logic, a recurring trap that writers and filmmakers have been stumbling head-first into ever since Richard Matheson had the brainwave to apply plague science to vampirism in I Am Legend, and probably before that.
But such critiques pale in the face of the emotional heft that Krasinski and his team earn over the course of their film. Horror films, even the great ones, have a tendency to devalue human life into so much red meat against the screen, but A Quiet Place instead finds something rousing, even life-affirming within its terrors. It recognizes the pain that goes into letting your child out into the world, but also offers up the notion that with love and support, children can learn not only how to survive in the world, but how to conquer it.
Neil Gaiman once said, and I don’t know if it was his quote or if he was paraphrasing something another Englishman said once, that fairy tales do not exist to tell children that dragons exist. Children know dragons exists. Fairy tales exist to tell children that dragons can be beaten.
So go forth, my friends. The world needs all the dragon slayers it can get.
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