There Will Be Blood, probably the best film of the 21st century so far, opens with a wordless virtuoso 15-minute sequence in which we are introduced to and then learn everything we need to know about Daniel Plainview and the world he lives in. It is a glorious testament to the brilliance of pure visual cinema. A Quiet Place, the new smash hit from John Krasinski, takes that conceit, adds a dash of creature feature creepiness, and extends it to 90 minutes. The result is a tight, well-executed horror/thriller that uses the lack of sound to ingeniously scare you, while also poking around at some metaphorical ideas about parenthood. Horror that makes you think is having a bit of a moment - see Get Out, the Babadook, It Follows - and A Quiet Place is a nice addition to the more sophisticated wing of the genre.
There is not much violence or gore in the film. Instead, Krasinski (who also stars, opposite his IRL wife Emily Blunt) milks his tension-laced, claustrophobic premise for all its worth: Earth has been overrun by blind but highly aggressive creatures that respond to any sound louder than a whisper by immediately killing the source of the sound. Their skin is a kind of impenetrable armor, so naturally they wiped out most of humanity in the early going since we as a species are incapable of being quiet. The film thus unfolds with almost no dialogue, as this family of farmer survivalists beats out a living through ingenuity, adaptability and the good fortune, by virtue of their deaf daughter, of already knowing sign language.
The hook is that sound is a liability, and the family goes to great lengths to preserve themselves by eliminating it. One of the consequences of this premise is that the movie is blessedly free from clumsy exposition dumps. Almost all the information we need to know - the rules of this world, the family dynamics, the steps they have taken to survive - are efficiently communicated through newspaper clips, sequences of characters living their daily lives, visual cues and other textbook examples of the Show Don't Tell philosophy. A headline fluttering in the ruins of a desolate town that reads: "It's Sound!" is a particularly great example of how the absence of sound forced the filmmaking team to use their noggins in clever ways (it is also, as the AV Club pointed out, probably the last headline that printing press ever ran before all the operators were eaten). That visual inventiveness is the film's greatest strength, and reveals Krasinski as the deeply talented director he is.
Of course, this is a genre film so there are some generic conventions. There are plenty of jump-scares. The creatures must, according to the rules of creature features, have an impossibly silly weakness that nobody but the protagonists can figure out. And a certain level of suspended disbelief is required. There is no explanation given for how these creatures appeared on Earth, but none is really needed - it works better without an overly detailed backstory. Most reviewers seem to assume they are from outer space, but I find it hard to imagine a group of blind brute animals building and operating an inter-stellar spacecraft.
There is also the matter of the baby. Even though this family lives and dies by silence, for some reason Blunt's character is pregnant. This surely works to drive up the tension and the stakes, and from a cinematic perspective it makes perfect sense and sets the table for some of the film's absolute best and most nail-biting scenes. From a logical perspective, I guess we just have to take a leap of faith and assume that one of the first things the aliens did was attack the local condom factory. This is a leap I'm comfortable taking.
The film also does double duty, not just as a creature feature about a bunch of scared people living like the Uni-bomber under constant threat of disembowelment, but also as a metaphor for parenthood, and the immense pressure that parents feel to keep their children safe from danger. Whether that danger is processed foods or being killed by aliens for farting too loud, the underlying theme and emotional stakes are basically the same. Some reviewers have ascribed the thematic depth of the film to the fact that the leads are really married, and in their actual marriage have two small children, much like the characters in the film.
Whether that is the reason or not, the result is the same. The movie benefits from the textured, complex dynamic within the family. It's not just about the white-knuckle fear of hiding in a basement while a terrifying creature skulks about on creaking floorboards trying to find you with echolocation. It's about the existential dread of living up to your responsibilities as a parent, the pressure to pass something onto your children so they can live a full life once you are gone, of navigating family tragedies. The genius of this film, helped along by the natural chemistry between the leads, is that all this weightiness is conveyed without much dialogue or big speeches, but rather through glances and facial expressions. In its own way, it's a very moving film and the visual language it uses is just so damn good.
I am also really pleased to see John Krasinski finally nail a big hit. The Office is one of the all-time great American television shows, and his portrayal of Jim is an instant classic. Since the show wrapped, however, he's struggled to shed the weight of such an iconic role. None of his acting projects panned out, even after doing The Chris Pratt and getting ripped for a jingoistic American war porn fairy-tale. I think it was, and will still be, hard to escape the legacy of Jim Halpert as that part was so tailor-made for his casual charisma. I'm also not actually sure that he has the range to be a great actor or leading man, the way his wife, the extremely talented Emily Blunt, does.
If he was to find his niche, I always sort of assumed it would be in directing. His first major directorial breakthrough was the opening credit sequence for The Office. This should have tipped us off about his fluency with wordless filmmaking, as nobody has ever imbued a water cooler making an air bubble with quite so much pathos before. He then directed two small indies, including The Hollars, which didn't make much of a splash. I began to wonder if his post-Office career would ever take off. Happily, we can now banish that though, as this film is not only going to make gobs of money (on a shoestring budget, no less) but critics are going positively goo-goo over it. He has made a name for himself as a very talented director, adding something new and interesting to a genre that is blasting out serious hits at the moment. Everything about this film just warms my heart.
Aside from the occasional disemboweling by blind lizard creatures, of course. But everything else is aces.