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Speak softly and carry a big stick – ‘A Quiet Place’

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One could make the argument that we’re currently in the midst of a horror movie renaissance. While the genre still offers up its share of misfires, horror has provided fertile ground for filmmakers looking to explore ideas big and small in sophisticated ways. It’s an arena where chances can still be taken. And when those risks pay off, you get some pretty great movies.

Movies like “A Quiet Place.”

The horror thriller – directed by Jim Halpert himself, John Krasinski (who also stars) – offers a fairly standard genre trope with its setting, a world laid waste by a largely unknown invader. The twist here is that these cunning and monstrous creatures hunt their prey with a highly-honed sense of sound. And so to survive is to remain as silent as possible – the noisy are the dead.

This is the world in which the Abbott family lives. Father Lee (Krasinski) and mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt, “Sherlock Gnomes”) have spent the months following the world’s collapse building a home in an isolated compound designed to minimize noise. Amidst the fear, Lee and Evelyn – along with their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, “Wonderstruck”) and their son Marcus (Noah Jupe, “Wonder”) – deal with past tragedies and hope for the future.

The family communicates exclusively in American Sign Language; they learned ASL to communicate with Regan, who is deaf. That devotion to quiet permeates the family’s entire existence. They walk barefoot; their property is crisscrossed by paths laid out in sand to minimize footstep sounds. Everything in their home is padded and every squeaking board is marked. And even with all their precautions, there are close calls with the monsters that listen for them.

Complicating matters is the fact that Evelyn is pregnant. The family rushes their preparations in an effort to deal with the sonic realities of childbirth, not to mention the occasional disagreeableness of infants. But will what they’ve done be enough? Will they be able to save themselves from the relentless vigilance of their murderous eavesdroppers?

It’s best not to reveal too much about the particulars of “A Quiet Place.” Not that there are a whole lot of particulars; Krasinski and company are perfectly content to present an incomplete picture of the world in which these people exist. We’re given scraps of information – mostly gleaned from the background – but in effect, we’re as in the dark as they are.

This is a good thing. Few things can unsettle quite like an absence of understanding. We don’t know the details; we just know that the world is in shambles and these things are what caused that. The rest is left to speculation – theirs and ours.

One particular that you DO need to know. That title ain’t lying. “A Quiet Place” has no music (save one contextually appropriate and particularly touching scene) and only a scattering of spoken lines. The rest of the film’s sound is incidental – wind through trees, quiet footsteps, occasional edge-of-audible whispers accompanying ASL exchanges. It’s a daring choice by screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (Krasinski also gets a screenplay credit); one that presents numerous obstacles to storytelling, but that also offers considerable payoff if properly executed.

For the most part, “A Quiet Place” pulls it off.

Kracinski doesn’t have much in the way of directorial experience, so it’s kind of surprising that he’d take such a big swing here. It’s a premise that could result in a film that’s distracting and gimmicky or worse – a unwatchable borefest. Happily, just about every choice he made was a good one. We get something laden with engaging tension; thick anticipation shot through with occasional flashes of monster (some playing lightning-fast, others lingering). The pacing is tight and the visual aesthetic is a good fit. There are a few jump scares, but the kind that occur organically and feel earned.

It’s a movie that demands a lot from its cast as well. The challenge of telling a story without speaking; even though the ASL interactions are subtitled, much of the narrative heavy lifting falls on the physicality of the actors. Krasinski and Blunt are excellent; casting the real-life marrieds would have been an inspired choice even if one of them wasn’t also the director. Their ease with one another locks in their dynamic instantly; their physical chemistry allows for considerable nuance and subtlety. The kids also largely prove up to the challenge. Millicent Simmonds (who is deaf in real life) gives a low-key impactful performance; there’s an unsurprising genuineness to her nonverbal communication that renders her extremely watchable. Jupe doesn’t have as much to do, but he’s solid. As a family unit, the quartet finds complex layers to their relationships and renders them compellingly despite not having the advantage of speech.

“A Quiet Place” has some issues. It occasionally has moments where it maybe takes itself just a bit too seriously. There are a few inconsistencies that raise questions. And less is more with regards to the monsters – a bit more mystery would likely have been better for everyone.

But those are minor quibbles. This is a really good movie, a tight, taut 90-minute thriller that takes some chances and tells a familiar story in an unfamiliar way. Sharp and scary, “A Quiet Place” is one hell of an outing from John Krasinski; we might have just witnessed a breakout.

[4.5 out of 5]

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