‘A Quiet Place’ SXSW Review: A thunderous debut for John Krasinski

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Normally when a critic writes that a certain film is a bad popcorn movie, they typically mean that it’s bad crowd-pleasing entertainment. That’s not the case with John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, which is most definitely a terrible popcorn movie, if only because the act of crunching your way through a bucket of yellow sludge-soaked kernels will earn you the ire and derision of every other theatergoer.

Living up to its name, the film is often so quiet that you’ll hear the breathing of the person next to you and, depending on how well they take their horror movies, potentially their heartbeat as well. Make no mistake, though: Krasinski has the goods, and his quiet chiller becomes a rollercoaster as it rolls through its small story. It’s easily the most assured debut by an actor-turned-director in a genre they’re seemingly unfamiliar with since Jordan Peele shocked us all with Get Out last year. And where that film excelled at its social commentary, A Quiet Place nearly hits the same marker with its technical precision. Them’s big words, but they’re absolutely earned.

The film looks, at first, as if it’ll follow the same thematic and textual framework that so many post-apocalyptic horror films typically do: A small family, led by a tough-seeming bearded patriarch (Krasinski) and a warm maternal figure (Emily Blunt) have to shepherd their children through the afterbirth of a dangerous new world, where they’re hunted by creatures that can hear with incredible precision. They do have a leg up on most other families in their empty upstate New York landscape: Their daughter (the fantastic Millicent Simmonds) was born partially deaf, and the family had to learn ASL in order to communicate.

But that initial blessing — a method of communication that the monsters will never be able to hear — is compounded by an early tragedy that the daughter blames herself for. Years pass, and the family settles into a comfortable rhythm: Walking on paths of sand to prevent the monsters from hearing their footsteps, monitoring their home with repurposed store security cameras; and despite the potential for catastrophe, they’ve managed to make a swell life for themselves. They even feel confident enough that the parents are expecting another child, who will be hidden away in a basement until it can understand the rules of this world. Then things go wrong.

Its in these early scenes that Krasinski begins to demonstrate his skills as a filmmaker, easily imparting enough information about the world and its inhabitants through the skillful deployment of teasing imagery. His camera remains steady and focused, and much of the first section is dedicated to establishing a routine for the characters, so that we can see how crazy things will get when it falls apart. It’s methodical and restrained in ways that other filmmakers would overplay as soon as they hit the 20-minute mark, but Krasinski never loses sight of his characters in the fog of genre thrills. It’s a more studio-friendly exploration of grief and guilt than Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night (and for those worried, there is some level of resolution here), but it’s equally as effective at imparting pain without totally conceding itself to the darkness. Even his sentiment is skillfully deployed, and the cast is able to make all of this work under what would seem to be extremely difficult circumstances.

Now, given that we’re dealing with atmospheric horror and also that this is a Platinum Dunes release, you’re going to be getting a ton of potentially cheap-feeling jump scares throughout the runtime. I normally hate-hate-hate them (I’m such a chicken that I wear earplugs to screenings sometimes), but honestly I really didn’t mind them here. I mentioned the film feeling like a rollercoaster early on, and I meant it: This is a ride comparable to something like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, and even if it lacks that film’s humor, it still lands similarly. You get so many scares thrown at you that eventually you’ll just throw your damn hands up and ride the wheel.

Again, all of this would be for naught if Krasinski didn’t have such an iron hand on his concept, camera and characters, and it also helps that he has some of the most interesting and innovative creature design in recent memory providing the jumps. These creatures — aliens, monsters, whatever, it doesn’t really matter — look generic on the surface, but reveal themselves to be meticulously crafted, and the close-ups on portions of their anatomy rank high amongst the best effects work in modern horror. They’re not as stirringly memorable as, say, the ManBearPig in Annihilation, but they come pretty damn close.

So, don’t trust the trailers on this one: A Quiet Place is a shocking debut for Krasinski, who will hopefully continue working within the genre after this (he admits he’s a scaredy-cat and doesn’t like watching horror), but whatever he plans on doing next, it will be appointment viewing. And maybe this will finally shut everybody up with all the fucking Office jokes. I know it made me eat all the Jim Halpert gags I made over the course of this film’s release, and I couldn’t be happier that I was wrong.

‘A Quiet Place hits theaters on April 6. Follow Nick Johnston on his adventures at SXSW 2018 @onlysaysficus. Featured photo credit: Paramount Pictures 2017 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.