Part monster-movie and part post-apocalyptic drama, “A Quiet Place” did well at the box-office and better with reviewers. Directed by and starring “The Office”alum John Krasinski, “A Quiet Place” was released in theatres on April 6, 2018. Its first week in theatres saw it earn a $50 million profit, the second largest debut for any US film in 2018, and it currently has a 95% ‘freshness’ rating at film review-aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. The film’s innovative use of sound as well as its deft navigation of genre conventions make it well worth watching.
The premise of the film is relatively simple. Seemingly-invulnerable monsters from outer-space who have invaded Earth murder any living thing that makes a sufficient amount of noise. As such, the protagonists of the film, a family of survivors living isolated lives on their rural farm, communicate almost exclusively in American Sign Language. With the majority of the film’s dialogue signed, or, for hearing audiences, subtitled, sounds of practically any volume in “A Quiet Place” constitute their own jump-scares. The film’s sound design is so deliberate and intentional that it rivals the cinematography and dialogue in terms of capturing the audience’s attention.
Millicent Simmonds’ portrayal of Regan Abbott has rightly been singled out for praise. As the willful daughter of Lee and Evelyn Abbott, portrayed respectively by Krasinski and actress Emily Blunt, Simmonds projects frustration and a sense of unfairness at her treatment within the family for her unwitting part in the death of her younger brother early in the film. Simmonds infuses the character with wit, as she saves her remaining brother from suffocation, and uncovers the monsters’ weakness through experimenting with her defective hearing aid.
Simmonds’ casting is notable for an additional reason. The controversial practice of casting hearing actors for the roles of deaf characters is still relatively common. As Simmonds, who is deaf, is fluent in ASL, her performance lacks the awkwardness that typically accompanies portrayals of hard-of-hearing characters given by hearing actors. Further, deafness, and disability more generally, have often been used as cinematic shorthand for a character or characters’ internal oddities; disabled characters have sometimes been shown as disabled in order to highlight a broader sense of incongruity. In “A Quiet Place”, Simmonds’ disability status is not taken as an offensive and outdated sign of her moral failings. Her broken hearing aid, repaired by her father before his death at the monsters’ hands, emits a noise so distracting and painful to the monsters that she and Blunt’s character are able to isolate and defeat the monsters invading their home.
Critics, including The Guardian’s Graeme Virtue, have said that “A Quiet Place” is part of a new trend of more socially-minded horror. But suggesting that the horror genre only recently developed a social conscience both misunderstands “A Quiet Place” and does a disservice to past entries into the horror film canon. Like any type of film, horror movies are products of the contexts in which they emerged. Many reflect anxieties that were present in the societies which produced them; the earliest films of the “Godzilla” franchise, for example, showcased their creators’ decided ambivalence towards nuclear power. The same could also be written of classic American horror films, a number of which dealt, obliquely, with themes such as racism and conformist culture.
It isn’t quite accurate to say that the monsters of this monster-movie are only partly the point. They provide the external conflict of the film and intensify internal familial strife. Yet they are distant runners-up in calculations of what made “A Quiet Place” so watchable. Innovation in sound-design and subversions of entrenched casting practices and typical story-beats, ultimately, make “A Quiet Place” the standout horror movie of the year so far.