To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock when speaking on suspense: "There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise. If two people are having a conversation at a table and suddenly a bomb under the table goes off, that's surprising, but then it's over. But if you tell the audience there is a bomb under the table at the beginning, you've completely changed the scene, and they'll hang on every word."
And so it is with A Quiet Place, the new horror film directed and co-written by John Krasinski, wherein we are treated to some of the most effected foreshadowing and visual storytelling we'll see this year.
Set in the not-too-distant year of 2020, the film takes place in rural upstate New York (the main location filmed in Beacon), where Earth has been invaded by predators who hunt by sound. Though blind, the creatures are so sensitive to sound that anything above a bare-footed walk on dirt will send them hurtling toward the source.
Holed-up together are Krasinski and Emily Blunt with their three children, including deaf actor Millicent Simmonds (whom Krasinski insisted on casting). The family's ironic advantage to this situation is, due to their daughter's condition, they already know sign language and can communicate silently with each other. I imagine the amount of spoken (and unspoken) dialogue in this film would fit within 5 pages.
There are several things done well with this film, thankfully none of them require me to spoil anything, which is due simply to the fact that the film is told so efficiently that there's almost nothing to spoil. There are aliens (?), they hunt based on sound, a family has set up a system that allows total silence, they have to survive when things go wrong, that's it.
To say specifically what the family's system is would spoil what are otherwise "oh would you look at that!" moments in the film, suffice to say there are several moments of utter brilliance that evolve as the story moves forward.
What I can say is that every film student should see this, it should be added to the curriculum of every film studies and production program, and it should be remembered every time you're about to put words to script. There are certain filmmakers who use dialogue in really interesting ways which add to the characters we're following; The Coen Brothers, Scorsese, Sorkin, you know them. I would not fault any young filmmaker who strives to emulate them, but more often than not film students will rely on their characters explaining how they feel and why they do what they are doing. I'm guilty of this, it's something I've been struggling with as a writer for years, and this film is a stellar reminder in how to show the audience the story without telling it to them. It works not just because the characters are forced to stay silent, but because the visuals are so strikingly effective in how they set up the plot and move things forward.
The sound design is, of course, a major star here. The audience in my theater didn't dare utter a whisper or shift in their seat during the entire screening, while hushed gasps came in place of outright screams. Sound in this film has such an oppressive and startling weight that even the slightest thing out of place feels like a shout. Sounds that should otherwise be almost inaudible are mixed to appear much louder than they would in real life, accenting and underlining just how imperative it is to silence it as soon as possible. Yes, some of these come off as cliched jump scares (honestly there are only 2 that are completely unnecessary), but they are the exception to the rule.
But greater than the sound is the foreshadowing this film utilizes. The first half of the film is devoted to setting up pieces that are doomed to come tumbling down, a balancing act so fine-tuned and precarious that the audience has no idea the kind of payoff they're about to be gifted (or cursed by) later on. I have to be vague here, but there's one element in particular that is shown to the audience fairly early on that got an audible "no" from somewhere in the theater, something that we knew was going to come up later, something we've all encountered before in our lives, something somehow worse than the killer aliens, and we were on the edge of our seats for every scene that took place after because we just didn't know when it was going to come into play again.
A huge congratulations to John Krasisnki for pulling this off and absolutely nailing his first foray into the horror genre. Maybe it'll be lightning in a bottle for him, but I'm looking forward to whatever he brings next.