Eli Roth once said if you don’t want to be scared in a horror movie, you don’t close your eyes; you close your ears. That’s because the scariest things in most movies are often not seen, but rather heard. That’s why we’re terrified of the shadowy corridors when we hear the Xenomorph’s snake-like hiss echoing off of the chambers in Alien. That’s why we shutter at Freddy Kruger when we hear his maniacal laugh and his claws scratching against the walls in Nightmare on Elm Street. And in Jaws, we’re never scared of the monstrous shark chasing Chief Brody and his friends, mostly because we rarely even see the creature. But every time we hear John Williams’ iconic theme building up beneath the water, it never fails to send shivers down our spine.
Environmental sound can often be used to build thrills in most horror pictures effectively. The ingeniousness behind A Quiet Place is that its sound is not an accompaniment to the film’s tension and unease. Instead, it is the film’s tension and unease. Too many times in other horror movies do we hear an orchestra of loud noises, screaming, and stomach-churning sounds as the movie’s victims react helplessly to the on-screen calamities. But in A Quiet Place, the scariest part of it is not the expression of sound: it is the inhibition of it.
Written, directed, and starring John Krasinski, a.k.a. Jim Halpert from “The Office,” A Quiet Place occurs in the not-too-distant future where aliens have taken over the planet and are hunting the remaining humans who have survived. The key to staying alive? Silence. With the aliens being blind, they use their hypersensitive eardrums to listen to any sound and strike their prey where they hear them. With Krasinski on the run with his family (portrayed by his real-life spouse Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe), he has to protect his family and find a way to fend off these monsters for good.
One of the immediate things you recognize about A Quiet Place is how expertly Krasinski manipulates sound to pull out the biggest reactions from viewers. In one of the earliest scenes, Krasinski and his family are rummaging around an abandoned convenience store for supplies. Even though we don’t understand the movie’s premise yet, we can read the family’s precise and careful movements and understand that they’re anxious in avoiding something.
The kids are tip-toeing around the aisles like they’re playing hide-and-seek. The mother is carefully picking through pill bottles like she’s trying to avoid the tripwire of a bomb. And when one kid nearly drops a toy onto the floor, the entire family is on-edge and tense from the child’s mishap.
Nothing has even happened yet, but the framing and the movements here are so meticulous that it’s easy to tell that something is wrong with this family. When the full threat is revealed later on and we witness the consequences of noisiness, we understand what’s a stake here and we are concerned about the family’s well-being. From then on, our attention to the film is unwavering and riveting.
This is what makes Krasinski’s work as a director here truly outstanding: he pulls the most significant reactions out of you from the most minuscule implications. Good directors do that, utilizing smaller details to build upon an escalating sense of dread and paranoia. Ben Affleck did that while directing his political thriller Argo in 2012, and Fede Alverez did the same thing in 2016’s Don’t Breathe. Now John Krasinski is following their lead, and he’s pulled off the tension of effect here masterfully.
The key lies in the editing. Not only does film editor Christopher Tellefsen expertly track between all of the different characters perspectives at once, but sound designers Erik Aadahl and Brandon Jones are impeccable with editing and mixing the sound and making it immediately relevant to their viewers. This makes sense, of course, given how much of the film’s premise is based on sound manipulation. Still, I’m impressed with their attention to detail here. Some sound levels, like the rolling of dice on a carpet, are increased to bring attention to the family’s sense of caution, while others like the creatures’ echolocation are brought down to emphasize their limits on tracking prey. One deaf character in the picture even has sound cut entirely during scenes where it’s showing her perspective. Small things like that subtly lend towards the film’s subversion, and the sound team’s work on this film is definitely deserving of an Oscar nomination. If they’re snubbed this year, it will be the first time I will be outraged over a sound category at the Oscars.
A Quiet Place is a masterful exercise in horror cinema, an expert example of subverting the genre and proving that things don’t have to be constantly blowing up to be exciting. In that, I have to give due praise not just to Krasinski, not just to the cast and crew, but to Michael Bay as well (yes, that Michael Bay). His production company Platinum Dunes produced this feature, and I’m grateful that they saw the value in Krasinski’s vision here and was confident enough to bring it to life in the theater. It shows that even Bay understands the value of subtlety and its importance to cinema. Hopefully Bay will take the lessons he learned on this production into the next project that he works on in the near future. Imagine this film if Optimus Prime were in it.