“It’s Sound!” screams a briefly glimpsed newspaper headline flapping in the wind at the start of actor-director John Krasinski’s marvelously tense, surprisingly melancholy horror thriller, A Quiet Place. That headline is no longer news to the family of five we meet inside an abandoned country market, where they gather supplies while communicating via sign language, encouraging smiles and, when the 4-year-old boy (Cade Woodward) nearly sends a toy crashing to the ground from a high shelf, looks of pure terror.
The family’s trip to town will turn out to be a prologue that builds, inexorably, to the death of the youngest child while also setting the ground rules for this desolate new America: Make any sort of sharp, unexpected sound and a mantis-like alien creature will zoom out of nowhere to swoop you away to an instant, grisly death.
A year later, that family has settled on a vast wheat farm, living in the basement of the main house and the barn’s fruit cellar. The mother (Emily Blunt) — the characters are never named — is pregnant, due in three weeks, and while she and her husband (Krasinski) never discuss the question the impending arrival raises, moviegoers aren’t likely to stop worrying over it: In a life that must be lived in silence, how do you manage a crying baby?
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The answer will prove to be ingenious, like so many of the survival tactics engineered by the father, who has hooked up surveillance cameras and strung holiday lights all across the farm, which will turn out to have a color scheme of special significance. The family walks in their bare feet, so as to have a lighter tread, and a squeak-free path has been painted onto the wood floors. Each day, the father pours fresh sand around the property so he can track how many unearthly creatures are clomping about. Current count: three.
More personally, he’s obsessed with repairing the cochlear implant of his daughter (the gifted 15-year-old deaf actress, Millicent Simmonds, recent star of Wonderstruck), from whom he’s increasingly estranged, in ways that have everything to do with complexities of the parent-child relationship rather than the problems of alien invasion survival. When it’s time to check the fish traps in a nearby river, the family’s surviving son (Noah Jupe) begs not to go — there be monsters out there — even as his sister pleads to take his place. The father insists the boy come along, and his daughter stay behind where she’ll “be safe.” What’s fascinating about the exchange is that in the middle of a scary movie, Krasinski and co-writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods turn our full attention to the push-and-pull of gender roles within a traditional family, and then, better still, let that theme evolve, in deeply emotional ways, over the course of the film.
A Quiet Place is Krasinski’s third film as director, after his misguided adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009) and the generic family drama The Hollars (2016). Neither of those movies suggested that “Jim” from TV’s The Office was a filmmaker bursting with talent — breaking news: not all actors were born to direct. That makes it a bit of a shock that A Quiet Place feels like the work of an old pro who has been newly inspired. There are fine touches, as when the sound mutes to a soft hum whenever the point of view shifts to the hearing impaired daughter, or the rigorous specificity of the many action set pieces, which include a harrowing, potentially classic sequence involving the siblings in a grain tower.
A Quiet Place is completely gripping, and in a film fully reliant on facial communication, exquisitely acted by those amazing kids, and by Krasinski and Blunt, who’ve never been better (and who also happen to be married in real life). The creatures, who look scrawny and disillusioned by movie’s end, aren’t likely to be remembered for long, but the husband and wife’s tender late night slow dance feels indelible. It’s a funny thing. A Quiet Place is full of fabulous, virtuoso action set pieces, but mere hours after seeing it, what I’m already flashing on the most are ways in which each member of this family, children and adults alike, tries to carry the weight of their central burden, which isn’t fear and dread, but guilt and grief, two monsters no third act plot twist can ever quite vanquish.