For a little while, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place seems to be designed exclusively to grapple with the challenge of exposition in horror cinema: How much to explain about where the scary threat comes from, and when to explain it, and who or what to saddle with that burden.
Plenty of horror movies avoid or at least downplay these issues by keeping the evil forces mysterious, or the characters’ point of views limited. But while A Quiet Place has fewer than half a dozen major characters, it isn’t particularly interested in ambiguity, and so those characters are boxed in by exactly the kind of circumstance that involves more elaborate understanding of what’s happening to them than, say, the demonic sex ghost of It Follows, which exists in part as an unsolvable, dread-filled puzzle.
Yet even though A Quiet Place conveys a lot of its information within five or 10 minutes, a nagging instinct remains, insisting that to spell out even the premise would be to spoil Krasinksi’s craft. This is especially silly because not all of the movie’s attempts to rewrite its exposition work. So anyone who wants to go into this film as cold as possible should turn back, and anyone comfortable with a slight tease should know that the smartest smidgen of expositional hints I’ve seen in a while comes in the opening moments of this movie, where a family (parents played by Krasinski and Emily Blunt) creeps through an abandoned grocery store in near-silent search of supplies. In several shots, the camera catches but doesn’t linger on shelves still well-stocked with bags of crunchy snacks. By the time the opening sequence is through, this detail makes total sense: Even if humanity is foraging abandoned buildings for food, the pop, rustle, and crunch of potato chips aren’t worth the risk. The creatures will hear these noises, and they will find you.
Again, this is not a delayed revelation: There are creatures lurking around this emptied-out, woodsy suburb, though their appearance is hidden for much of the film. But it’s quickly apparent that these things are so attuned to the sounds humans make that any noise above a murmur brings them out with a vengeance; in a single swoop, the movie tacitly explains where all the other people are (at least in this particular area). This is, in the words of the onscreen text, day 89, although we quickly skip ahead to about a year later. As the movie follows the family around their sand-softened, sign language-heavy, extremely watchful daily routine, the tension over sound is high, but one aspect brings glorious relief: The exposition must stay on mute.
This doesn’t mean that it’s all as elegant as the movie’s opening minutes. The father keeps a basement study, of sorts, with headlines about the creatures tacked up for little discernible purpose beyond tantalizing snippets of the world before these creatures for the audience (“IT’S SOUND!” proclaims one rag from the New York metro area). Significantly worse are the whiteboards he keeps, chronicling the lack of brainstorms happening over a year into this terrible new normal, keeping track of the number of creatures known to be in their area (which would make sense if that number weren’t just three), and “weakness??” scrawled out as a wholly unnecessary reminder that this family is not aware of any soft spots in their nemeses. (Is it an unfair fantasy to picture producer Michael Bay insisting on this bit of set decoration?)
Apart from the wall pinnings that literally spell things out, though, A Quiet Place moves as carefully and masterfully as the bedeviled family—and eventually, it becomes clear that its formal restrictions don’t just affect the communication of backstory. Instead, the fact that only a handful of lines rise above a whisper (with many much lower than that) recalibrates the entire experience of watching a mainstream horror picture. Jump scares, those much-maligned cheap tactics of so much bad horror, become jumpier because they’re not just soundtrack stings; they’re how these characters experience bursts of chaotic noise. In scenes that focus on the family’s deaf older daughter (Millicent Simmonds, the talented and actually deaf young actress from Wonderstruck), sound, rather than vision, functions as a point-of-view cue. And with dialogue kept mostly to whispers and subtitled signs, the “heart” of the movie, the part of so many contemporary horrors that feels like it’s being typed up with one eye on a screenwriting manual, beats louder and clearer than usual. Krasinski, who has a family with Blunt in real life, is interested in the elemental function of parenting, when a whole lot of extra stuff—a lot of the good stuff, really—is cruelly stripped away. It’s terrifying and touching, which is to say pretty true to the experience of having a family.
It would be easy to oversell A Quiet Place with the fact that it does what it does very, very well. The back half of the movie is basically one extended set piece with a few brief moments of respite, with especially bravura work from Blunt. It’s possible that no actor-filmmaker combo has so effectively wrung so much tension out of literally being barefoot and pregnant. Yet the endangerment of children and a pregnant lady is one more horror trope that A Quiet Place redeems through sheer force of craft. For the most part, Krasinski knows how to place and move his camera, when to zero in on a terrible detail that is about to turn crucial, and which sound effects to crank up in place of human speech. At first, it feels like a technical challenge; by the end, you may feel like, if anything, dude’s just showing off.