When a scary movie gets truly scary, closing your eyes doesn’t work. The thing to do (if you’re a hearing person) is to put your fingers in your ears. Perhaps that doesn’t work for everybody, but for me—a horror fan who feels suspense-tension like a pain, not a thrill—it does the trick. When things get very quiet and you know a jump scare is coming, blocking out the audio cue that accompanies the sudden gnashing of monster teeth or the glint of a knife can keep your heart rate down, or at least stop you from screaming out loud in public.
The new movie A Quiet Place, directed by and starring John Krasinski along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt, is an experiment in the meaning of sound. The premise is simple but original. Aliens have attacked earth, but they can only find and eat the humans if they make a sound. The movie follows the Abbot family—parents Evelyn and Lee, and kids Regan, Marcus, and Beau—as they homestead in the American wilderness barefoot, trying their best not to make a peep.
The eldest child, Regan, is deaf, which puts the family at the advantage of being able to sign, but makes things harder for her because she might inadvertently knock something over and not realize it. The movie runs on fear of the aliens, but also of the possibility of failing to protect your kin. In the first scene of the movie, title-carded “Day 89,” Regan gives her little brother Beau a toy rocket that he sneaks batteries into. As the family walks single-file back home from a scavenging trip, the rocket flares into life. Lee runs towards Beau but is not fast enough. Grief haunts the family and Regan is wracked by a double pain: her guilt over Beau’s death, and her father’s repeated failure to engineer a hearing aid that works for her.
Regan is played by the radiant Millicent Simmonds, who audiences may remember from Wonderstruck (2017). Krasinski has said that it was “non-negotiable” for him to hire a deaf actress for the role. In an interview with the Indiana Daily Student, Krasinski recalled that Simmonds was reading the characters in each actor’s signing styles. “I think it’s really interesting that each of the characters is coming out in your sign,” she said. Krasinksi asked what she meant, and she replied that “the father is a guy who doesn’t care about anything in the world but keeping people safe.” So, Krasinski said, “all of his signs are very curt and short, and Emily is trying to give these kids a much bigger life. So hers are much more poetic and gesture-y.”
The subsequent focus on communication with faces and hands is a boon for great actors like these (Blunt and Simmonds are especially fine). Lee Abbott has to tell his fearful son Marcus to trust him using only his face, holding him close in his gaze.
With the traditional dialogue muted, other sounds are enhanced. Cornfields rustle. The whistle of Regan’s hearing aid—which turns out to be a key plot point—can come through. The timbre of the family’s domesticity has a strange texture. They do not eat with cutlery off plates; instead, in one scene, they eat fish with their hands from an improvised dish made of large salad leaves. They are barefoot, so you cannot place the characters in space via the sound of footsteps.
When Lee and Evelyn, who is pregnant, take a romantic moment together in the basement, she invites him to dance with her through gesture and touch. They share a pair of headphones, though the audience only hears that it’s Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” when Lee puts his side in his ear. If the music were part of an omniscient soundtrack, rather than the secret audio experience of two stressed parents trying to maintain a marriage amidst an alien invasion, the effect would have been completely different.
A Quiet Place is also an unusual (for mainstream Hollywood) study in deafness and intimacy. Lee is a ferociously protective father, but he protects Regan more closely than Marcus. Lee loves his daughter but does not express it well to her, working incessantly on new hearing aid devices but disappointing her when they do not work. “Just stop,” she signs to him, frustrated by his flawed attempts to fix her. His love comes out all wrong, inflected by a subtle ablism. In one gorgeous scene, Regan is alone in her room. She tests the new device out and we hear with her. Her silence turns into the cloudy hum of the device’s effect. Then she snaps her fingers next to her right ear. We hear nothing. She bends forward in tears, but we do not hear her crying.
A Quiet Place’s focus on sound also throws its soundtrack into sharp relief. Marco Beltrami’s score is fairly traditional for the genre, combining mechanical screeches with strings and a deep threatening bass. The bassline lurches in a descending groan, made of strings but strongly reminiscent of the so-called BRAAAM noise-burst that Inception’s Han Zimmer spread everywhere through movie sound design. That style—an intermittent blast of low, treated horns that starts at one pitch and dips slightly downward into the adjacent semitone—is in everything, as various YouTube supercuts demonstrate. In Beltrami’s score, it’s combined with an atonal string harmony rife with glissando and tone clusters. The effect is very contemporary and minimal, Jonny Greenwood-like, and it might sound dated very soon.
At the end of it all, there remains the scream. Most of A Quiet Place is about hearing, and the complicated dance of gesture and expression that human beings use to communicate with one another. But the human voice is also an animal property. Inevitably, the pregnant Evelyn has to attempt the seemingly impossible: to give birth without a sound. In A Quiet Place the primal scream that people make when in agony or fear or rage becomes a nuanced cinematic object. This is a movie about the sound of fear, but it gives us a great deal more to listen to.