Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Quiet Place / ***1/2 (2018)

In many respects “A Quiet Place” is pitched as a silent film, without verbal cues or explanations underscoring the plot’s core function. Immediately that prospect will conjure up a befuddling uncertainty in the audience: how are they to establish a setting, who the players may be and what’s occurring to them? What is the context? Are mere physical observations enough? Any number of sensationalist outings would freely risk continuity without a well-modulated visual device, but to see it done here is to discover a filmmaker who has studied, mastered and executed the great doctrines of Hitchcock and Kubrick, whose own stories were usually incidental to the orchestration of a mood. What he accomplishes here, in a horror film set somewhere in the modern world, is astounding: a survival study that says little but observes, impeccably, as a family braves the unknown in a place that has been (apparently) wiped out by bloodthirsty monsters. And when two verbal exchanges do occur on screen, the words have no importance; they are gestures to supply the characters with a reminder of their hard push for endurance, and why they refuse to surrender to a fate that has isolated them in the cold clutch of despair.

Good films may suggest this reality, usually in technical measures. Better ones will force us to inhabit them. When I saw the picture among a large turnout of scare-hungry moviegoers, it was clear they belonged to the latter class. The giveaway was in the behavior; in a room full of 200 people where the faces on-screen communicated through sign language and sound was reserved for a rumbling soundtrack, not a single voice or rustling could be heard. They were like ghosts existing above noise. In some way that realization only emphasizes the engrossing nature of the scenes. We are compelled to watch, without interruption, as people move cautiously through a world where a mere trip or cough could give away their location to ravenous beasts. To react in any vocal or raucous manner would be like sabotaging the momentum of the material. We are implicated as influences in an impending bloodbath.

Am I overstating the relationship between the viewer and his material? Maybe a little. But such thoughts enter our mind because John Krasinski, the director and star, has created a marvelous film that is genuinely frightening, without the zeal or polish of a routine studio picture where all the scares are conducted to convention. We react not as outsiders, but as participants. The movie’s best moment reflects this incentive: after realizing that she is going into labor while the family is away, Evelyn (Emily Blunt) stumbles down to the basement and inadvertently steps on a nail, leading to a brief shriek that signals her location to creatures with impeccable hearing sensors. Her scream is not the realization of the horror, but the precursor to it; because we know that the predators will soon be searching the narrow corridors of the house, she quietly ascends the stairs to hide in the bathtub, all while struggling with the dual pain of a foot wound and pregnancy contractions. Meanwhile a nasty, shadowy figure creeps slowly towards its destination, as if sensing the trail of the fear. Will another noise off in the distance save her in the final moment, before they have found their prey? The peak has such a visceral, skilled choreography that her eventual scream feels like a release of our own throttled anxiety.

Evelyn is one of a household of five who are seen early on in a routine of strange simplicity. Together with her husband Lee (Krasinski) and their three young children – Regan (who is deaf), Marcus and Beau – they have made a trip into an abandoned mountainside town to pick up provisions from a vacant grocery store. Little is left other than prescription medication, canned goods and toys; the youngest of the kids sees a rocket on a high shelf, reaches to grab it and instills the panic of his siblings when it becomes obvious it may crash onto the floor. What are the fearful of? No indication is made, other than the need for absolute silence. Regan’s hearing impairment, luckily, supplies them the skill of sign language. But youth also has a way of testing the limits of parental instruction, and this leads to a scene on a bridge in the nearby woods where a noise (and then an urgent chase) create the first shot of an enraged monster rushing through the trees.

Weeks pass. The family treads ever-so-cautiously through the same ascetic push for survival, huddled together in a house in the country surrounded by corn fields and light signals. At some point it becomes obvious they may have reached an unsettling acceptance. The children play board games using felt pieces. Everyone walks barefoot. During an overhead shot, we spy grooves cut out on the floor boards to indicate walking paths, perhaps to avoid the possibility of creaks. Downstairs, notes on a dry erase board suggest a continued attempt to understand and fight the enemy (“It is blind,” one scribble reads). Though much of these behaviors are facilitated by the protective instincts of their father, it is the children who carry the movie forward – particularly Regan (Millicent Simmonds), whose lack of hearing may be the cruelest double-edged sword (she may not make noise, but how can she tell a predator is on her tail?). Meanwhile, the impending birth of a child foreshadows the conflict further – can a mother be expected to remain silent during the act of delivery? Won’t the infant’s cries essentially be a death sentence? The film builds these impending traumas with no plan or discussion, perhaps, because a known strategy might have cut through the suspense and diminished the payoff.

If the story supplies a tonal laboratory to test these experiments, then the monster itself is like a rabid rat set loose in the maze. Where does it come from? Why does it attack in such a quick, fast-paced manor? The movie is less interested in answers than it is in the feeling it inspires: in this case, the same underlying dread created by the monsters in “Alien” and “The Thing.” And yet its relative obscurity through the first act – we only see it in darkness or rushes of speed –  is not indicative of a bad visual exercise being held back by nervous effects artists, either. What they come up with is convincing, almost nightmarish. And like any good filmmaker at the helm of a plausible creature feature, Krasinski teases us so relentlessly with the uncertainty of its anatomical potential that we literally never know what to expect. Is it destined to only emerge from between the trees after a noise has been made, or do the characters risk running into it without any sonic precursor?

The screenplay was penned by Krasinski and two other scribes, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, and they have done something unthinkable: created an ambiguous, open-ended carnival of terror that says little but creates complex tests on the edge of an unstable foundation. The loss of dialogue aggravates the situation further, especially since horror films usually depend on the self-aware commentary to normalize a crime or violent act (or at least supply it with some firm context). Would any of these events have been as effective, however, if the characters had been allowed to discuss their situation out in the open? Would it have worked if we knew the full scope of what the creatures were or where they came from? Would the climax have been as sly if we understood the agendas of the survivors well before they set them into motion? Rare is it to be see so much fresh dexterity in a time of creative saturation. If the film endures, just as any number of recent genre endeavors have, it’s because it reflects the attitude of a new generation of filmmakers who have wrestled against the formula of a gratuitous bloodbath and superficial jump scares. “A Quiet Place” is birthed from the same audacious aesthetic as “The Conjuring,” “The Babadook,” “It Follows” and “Goodbye Mommy” – one where fear is literally confronted at the menacing core.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Horror (US); 2018; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 90 Minutes

Emily Blunt: Evelyn Abbott
John Krasinski: Lee Abbott
Millicent Simmonds: Regan Abbott
Noah Jupe: Marcus Abbott
Cade Woodward: Beau Abbott

Produced by
Michael Bay, Scott Beck, Jeffrey Beecroft, Celia Costas, Andrew Form, Bradley Fuller, Aaron Janus, John Krasinski, Allyson Seeger and Bryan WoodsDirected by John Krasinski; Written by Scott Beck, John Krasinski and Bryan Woods

No comments: