A Quiet Place

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Most movies are longer, not to mention louder, than they need to be—so much so that I’ve become a running-time bigot. When I learn that a film I’m about to see will run its course in 90 minutes or thereabouts, I assume it to be a masterpiece unless proved otherwise. “A Quiet Place” is exactly 90 minutes long, or short. It may not make the masterpiece cut, but this little horror thriller is enormously entertaining, because it’s organized around a terrific idea—the necessity of absolute silence.

What a concept, right? A film that pulls its audience in with the absence of sound. All films did that during the silent era, but this one, directed by John Krasinski, is very much a soundie, if seldom a talkie. In a rural corner of a post-apocalyptic world, a husband and his pregnant wife, played by Krasinski and his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, are trying to protect their three children from a newly evolved evil—a ghastly plague of blind monsters who listen for the slightest sound, then devour the hapless human who made it.

The practical results of the family’s plight are many. Wherever they go, indoors or out, they walk barefoot, on tiptoe, with bated breath. They play music, or listen for any messages from the outside world, only through earphones. Mostly they communicate in sign language, and they sign exclusively when the conversation includes the oldest child, Regan, who is deaf. (She’s played by Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf, and a wonderful young actress.)

The movie is smart, spare and shrewd – and enjoyably shameless in its use of several classic suspense tropes. And Krasinski is affecting in his role of a father fearing the worst for his children: “Who are we,” he asks, “if we can’t protect them?” Emily Blunt, who’s superb throughout, gives new meaning in her performance to the pain of childbirth.

There’s reason to be grateful any time a genre movie transcends the genre’s limits. But this is a special case, a modest production that addresses the sensory overload disorder that afflicts today’s moviegoers. As mainstream movies struggle to keep their place in an ever more crowded and competitive media world, they all but nuke us with sights and sounds—screens full of dense imagery, speakers pumping out decibels up to, or beyond, the threshold of pain. It’s a formula for passivity, a dulling of perception in the realm of recoiling senses. By contrast, the most formidable weapon brought to bear by “A Quiet Place” is sensory underload. The film invites, and rewards, emotional acuity. It keeps you listening, not just watching, whets your dramatic appetite by tickling your tympanic membrane. And it’s a movie, in the classical sense of the term, a story perfectly unsuited to long-form TV. No need for extended binging here; the binge is brief, and fulfilling.

I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.