23 April 2018

A Quiet Place review

Cinema may be an audiovisual medium, but silence is one of the most effective tools a film-maker has at their disposal. When used well, the absence of any and all noise can draw an audience into a moment like nothing else, instantly ramping up the tension as they tentatively wait to see what might be behind the sudden need for quiet. It's a very primal reaction that films, TV and even video games have been taking advantage of for decades now, and it's one that A Quiet Place uses to great effect, making well-established techniques feel incredibly fresh in the process.

I mean, it's kind of genius really. By setting a horror movie in a world where making any kind of noise is likely to get you killed by a lightning fast and virtually invulnerable alien predator, A Quiet Place finds an in-universe excuse to never allow its audience the release of tension that something as simple as a conversation or the hustle and bustle of normal life often provides. Most of the time, a dead silence in a horror film indicates that something is about to jump out and scare you - here, it's indicative of nothing in particular, offering no clues about if the characters we follow throughout (the Abbotts, a fairly typical American family of 5) are in immediate danger or not, and that can't help but imbue every single scene with a staggering amount of suspense that the film itself doesn't even need to work that hard to maintain. Even the most ordinary of day-to-day tasks to take on extra significance when you know that the smallest of slip ups will have deadly consequences, and that's something that A Quiet Place takes great pleasure in playing with.

This is what I mean when I say that A Quiet Place is really intelligently written - not that it's thematically deep or scientifically accurate or asking big philosophical questions of its audience, but simply that it has a really solid understanding of how to get the most out of its premise. I'm pretty sure you could write a dissertation about how well A Quiet Place establishes threat, or effectively sets up later pay off - there's clearly been a lot of thought put into figuring out how a family would go about living their lives in a world where noise means danger, and all of A Quiet Place's set pieces are driven by that in one way or another. Take, for example, an upturned nail sticking up from a stair that only we are aware of - it's a great example of what Alfred Hitchcock was talking about when he defined the difference between surprise and suspense as being whether or not the audience know about the bomb under the table before it explodes, and that turns the simple act of walking up and down a particular set of stairs into something that has the audience on the edge of their seats.

But more impressive is how even when the shit does hit the fan, A Quiet Place never abandons these smart suspense building techniques in favour of the kind of exciting but dumb chase sequences you could easily imagine it falling back on. It would have been all too easy to keep things moving by introducing new external threats in the form of other humans or random events - instead, everything logically stems from the thing that preceded it, resulting in a film that feels less like the kind of "and then this happened" storytelling that we're used to in monster movies and more like watching a carefully constructed Rube Goldberg machine operate without fault. A sound attracts the aliens; the Abbotts do something to draw the aliens away; now they must deal with the consequences of what they did to draw the aliens away. It's nothing groundbreaking by any means, but it's a neat "but, therefore" loop of sorts that lends A Quiet Place a sense of internal consistency, a sense of consequence that is vital to its success.

It helps, of course, that director/co-writer/star John Krasinski seems just as at home behind the camera as he does in front of it. The amount of visual storytelling required of this kind of film means it could've easily collapsed under its own weight with a less capable director at the helm - fortunately, Krasinski instead makes it all seem quite easy, ensuring throughout that the audience have all the information they need at any given moment to fully understand the stakes of the situation at hand. All the neat storytelling ideas in the world wouldn't mean much if they weren't executed well on-screen - that they are is really just another feather in both Krasinski's and A Quiet Place's cap.

None of this is to say that A Quiet Place is flawless, of course. I wish it had ended on a better (or at the very least, less predictable) beat than it does, and for me, the emotional core of the film rang a touch hollow, but they're ultimately flaws that did very, very little to detract from what A Quiet Place ultimately is - a ridiculously tense and really well put together monster movie that at just 90 minutes long knows what it is and doesn't feel like wasting your time. It's smart, measured, well thought out and imbued with the kind of suspense that I really wish we saw more of in modern cinema, and I can't imagine many people walking away from it without having had a really good time.

4 stars

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