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In case anyone forgot what this means.

A Quiet Place is probably going to be one of the more overrated movies of the year. It’s getting rave reviews, lots of positive word of mouth, etc. But it doesn’t really deserve all that. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s no slam dunk and is not at all an “instant horror classic”. They said the same shit about It Comes at Night and as trite as that one turned out to be, it was still better than this (owing mostly to Chris Abbot). Hell, Signs was better than this and if it was going to take three writers to basically rewrite Signs, they really should have made sure their movie was a step up.

I say this because once you get past the uniqueness of the situation in the movie, there’s not much left to chew on. This wouldn’t really be a problem if the remainder wasn’t a series of increasingly stupid contrivances that sap the integrity of the story, which is too simple and sentimental to carry it through that. I think this is a writing and structure problem which becomes readily apparent when the third act kicks in and A Quiet Place becomes a very loud, relentlessly “scary” place. You see the creatures too much, drawing the same uncomfortable comparisons to other stuff (Stranger Things in this case) that many of the plot points do to Signs or even Hidden. There’s also that the movie stops following its own established rules, acts like spinning out a reveal that was contrived from the get-go is cathartic, and so on. It becomes laughable and I found myself chuckling through a lot of the last twenty minutes or so. I’ll remind you that I’m here for horror movies, even dumb ones, and A Quiet Place needed to be especially dumb and inconsistent for me to react this way.

I expect that there’s going to be a lot of big buzz about this early on, and then a quieter reappraisal of the movie as “just okay”. It’s too bad, because I really liked the first half and was able to buy into the simplicity and sentimentality of the story up to a certain point. I was worried about the characters and there were several very effective scenes early on. There’s also a lot of quieter moments in the first half, building up some scraps of intelligent world-building that the movie could have used a lot more of.

A SPOILERS PLACE

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Just a nice white family in a mixed up, crazy world.

The movie begins almost 90 days into an apocalyptic disaster brought on by strange, seemingly indestructible creatures that hunt by sound. A family ekes out an improbably clean and dignified life on a farm, but we buy it because there’s a lot of care given to showing us the various adaptations they’ve made to living and surviving in this weird world. Because they try to live and not just survive, we quickly get on board with them and see how much they care about each other. The family is never named, though they all have full names in the credits, so I’ll just refer to them by their roles, which is really about as interested in family dynamics as the movie is anyway. There’s Dad (John Krasinski), ever watchful and seemingly competent, Mom (Emily Blunt), nurturing and good-humored, Big Sister (Millicent Simmonds), rebellious and deaf, Little Brother (Noah Jupe), scared and uncertain, and Littlest Brother (Cade Woodward), doomed as the traditional horror movie sacrifice.

My cousin described this movie’s core theme as: “Selfish parents trying to get a redo on the kid that died” and she isn’t wrong. When an innocent gesture from Big Sister enables Littlest Brother to make a staggeringly dumb decision that we can buy as a product of youthful obliviousness, he is ruthlessly dispatched by the monsters. Even though we all basically saw this in the trailer, it really does set a solid basis for the movie in terms of stakes, an interesting wound the family will perhaps heal from, and so on. I say the decision is staggeringly dumb but I don’t mean this from a writing standpoint as there are immediate consequences and it’s early enough for us to roll with a kid not knowing any better three months in. Why the movie could fittingly be described the way my cousin did so is because there’s really no apparent or believable reason why these people would permit themselves to become pregnant in this scenario, except for that maybe they are that kind of Christian. This would not be the only dog-whistle to “heartland American values” that this movie exhibits, so I would bet I’m not far off. Of course, Krasinski is wise enough to keep that shit implicit, though why it’s even a part of the fabric of this movie is beyond me. The other way to interpret the coming bay as a ticking clock on the movie is that these people are just that stupid or overconfident. Both notions are well founded by the end, but taken at face value do not seem to be the intended sense of these people that the viewer is supposed to have.

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They’re married in real life. Just thought you should know.

A year or so later,  they’re all coping with the loss of Littlest Brother in their own ways, but it’s especially apparent in the kids. Big Sister is even more rebellious, especially with her father who we’re told is cold toward her (we never see concrete evidence of this) due to blaming her for Littlest Brother’s demise. Meanwhile, Little Brother is terrified of everything, for good reason. The adults seem to be trying to keep everything together, focusing on what they can do to keep the semblance of normalcy in their family alive in the face of what’s happening around them. This is solid, simple stuff and I liked these early slice of life scenes quite a lot, in spite of their apparent politics. It helps that there’s a directorial commitment here that is rarely seen in mainstream films. 90% of these early bits are in American Sign Language, Krasinski fought to cast Big Sister with an actual deaf actress (a very laudable move for representation), etc. He deserves some credit for pulling these elements together and they are a big part of why the movie works in the early stages.

The turning point of the movie, both in terms of its plot and quality, is down to two things that Dad does. The first is try for what seems like one of many times to give Big Sister a new experimental hearing aid. She is pretty angry about this, inexplicably, and kind of acts like a miserable brat over it. But she takes it anyway, though it’s never clear why she would except for that it’s important to the plot later. Then Dad takes Little Brother on a fishing trip and neglects to take her, even though she asks, which is perhaps intended to be a sign of his coldness toward her, but which I think is more about old fashioned “values” which run through the fabric of this movie in a way that will make many of its viewers feel an affirming sense of comfort and familiarity in spite of how that fantasy is tarnished by reality. My brother asked me, “why didn’t he take her fishing?” because the movie fails to give us a reason, since obviously he’s Dad and he loves her, so while I didn’t think of it then, the only clear answer I could give him seems to be “gender norms”. I mean, this all-white, all-American family are corn farmers for fuck’s sake. They even settle their problems at the end of a gun. It won’t be me who writes the analysis that is totally based on stuff like this, but someone will because it’s all there.

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The movie is generally well-acted, with this scene being a standout. It’s hard to act without being able to talk and the cast pulls it off well.

I really think a large part of the positive reaction is down to the way the family breaks into the traditional roles of antiquated farm life. There’s an audience for affirmations of this kind, and I’m sure there are just as many people willingly ignoring the dog whistles as there are people hearing them loud and clear. Dad tinkers with technology, protects the family, gets the food and passes on practical skills. Mom cooks, cleans, and teaches basic academics. Little Brother is expected to learn how to do man stuff to take care of Mom, as she says herself, but Big Sister’s role is to… stay and help cook and clean? No wonder she’s pissed off. This registers as a much better established reason than feeling like her dad blames her for Littlest Brother’s death. The execution of these motivations in the movie is muddled and there’s no discussion of the gender side of this. The focus is squarely on the idea that Dad doesn’t love her anymore because he blames her, which is not supported by his actions at all, leaving the discerning viewer wondering what his real motives are. For others, it’ll be self-evident. She’s a girl!

Anyway. The family’s seemingly routine day turns out not so much when am escalating series of “bad luck” encounters and occurrences (that are on a parallel scale of contrived and stupid) all come together to give the family a big ol’ night of terrors. Big Sister runs away, like kids do when they are unfairly repressed, and Mom is alone with the chores while being very pregnant. I can buy that she misses the nail that tears the laundry bag, leading her to make the noises that eventually bring the creatures. It’s a big ask, but I’d roll with it if it was the one contrived moment that propelled the rest of the third act.

Instead, it’s just a sign of things to come.

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Out of context, this image is a little unsettling isn’t it?

The family is scattered but all driven to get back to Mom and the farm as quick as they can. There are contingencies that they’ve worked out, but they are all very elaborate and fairly ineffectual… the kind of stuff that a writer might conjure if they were trying to make a character seem like a MacGyver. Unfortunately, the sheer number of these things, and the ways they don’t really work, makes Dad seem more like a MacGruber. The first is the fireworks, which works all right if you don’t want whoever sets them off to either die immediately or get lost in the corn maze. These critters are quick and it’s hard to imagine that Dad wasn’t fully aware he was sacrificing Little Brother. The movie does not play it that way, of course, because that would be interesting and instead it’s just one of many hail marys they throw during this section of the movie. It also betrays the logical inconsistencies and shortcomings that make it hard to believe this family survived the first 90 days, let alone the rest of the 300 or so since the beginning of the movie.

The example that frustrates me most  is that Mom has a mechanical kitchen timer and uses it to distract one of the monsters. Why don’t they all have a handful of these on their person at all times? Didn’t any of them play The Last of Us? Since the movie takes place post 2020, they definitely could have. Fuck, “sound” as a liability in survival is a well-established trope in general. Moreover, Dad can find all the hearing aids in the world, but he doesn’t have bags of devices that make noise and can be quickly thrown as a misdirection technique? This is the kind of thing where the movie shows just enough thought about it that it raises many questions about where the rest is. Like most zombie media where survivors never seem to develop any kind of special tactics or devices to cope (nicely lamp-shaded in World War Z actually), the contrivance is we’re supposed to pretend that all these possibilities are absent somehow. Sure, they’ve been “overlooked”, only not by the characters. Not believably. This type of thing is often wrongly called a “plot-hole” and usually isn’t actually enough to sink a movie. Unfortunately for A Quiet Place, the choosiness about the family’s survival tactics rings very false and because having more varied and effective tactics at their disposal wouldn’t actually break the movie, there’s no good excuse for why they are so incredibly inept at surviving within the rules of their own story. You can’t even say that they “haven’t thought of it” since we get that scene with the kitchen timer, which might read to some like improvisation but that take only compounds the stupidity of it.

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Of course they fall in the corn silo.

Elements like that derail a lot of the tension that the final act relies on. We’re supposed to feel like this relentless, no-reprieve, series of escalating problems and quick, desperate solutions. But without any time to take a breath or get a full sense of (inevitably false) reprieve, the movie starts to just seem like it’s throwing the creatures in our faces, having them appear magically even, in an unending assault on both the characters in the movie and the credibility of the movie itself. On the page, the gamble of switching gears into constant action and terror for thirty or so minutes might seem worthwhile and I’d like to see something like that done well, but A Quiet Place fails to justify even going for that and winds up contradicting the kind of movie it was up to that point in a way I don’t think it survives.

Then there’s the ending. A lot of people are praising it and for the wrong reasons, or in a way that neglects how it kind of undermines the movie that came before it. The very, very end is a fun and self-aware moment where, having realized the monsters are vulnerable, Mom cocks a shotgun like “now it’s our turn”. It’s a broadly suggestive moment, self-aware because it’s having fun with the incredulity of this very convenient, very contrived turn of the tables. It’s also kind of an Ellen Ripley sign off, suggesting a sequel that’ll never happen where it’s a straight fight with the monsters, delivering the catharsis many monster movies offer much earlier as a kind of wink. I think it’s a clever way to end this kind of movie, and it certainly fits with the fact that the movie doesn’t want to fully commit to a third act “payback” turn. However, what comes right before this is basically a straight lift from Signs. Don’t believe me? Let’s get to it.

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No seriously, this means “shhh!”

In Signs, it turns out that the seemingly invulnerable aliens actually had a major weakness the whole time. It only reveals itself at the final possible instant, where it seems clear that the family we’re following is totally fucked and the monster is stripped of dignity, standing around waiting for them to realize what can kill it. A Quiet Place does basically the exact same thing, except that it hints at the weakness much earlier and in a way that is just more egg on the movie’s face. See, Big Sister’s new experimental hearing aid seems to really fuck with the monsters’ gross ear-heads and they freak out and run away from her. She doesn’t notice because she can’t hear the first one reacting, and it’s behind her, out of view (contrived). She gets a second opportunity to figure it out, right up close and personal with one, but doesn’t connect the dots (contrived). Then she turns the fucking thing off just in time to watch Dad die after delivering an overly earnest and ridiculous “I love you, I’ve always loved you” message. That’s beyond contrived. It’s also supposed to be a big emotional payoff but since that storyline is so poorly supported, it falls on its face and just makes you focus on how hackneyed the moment is.

Then we get to the basement where Dad has been trying to reach others with his radio and where he’s been tinkering with hearing aids. This is where the final confrontation will occur. It doesn’t bother me that time stretches out and we have to watch Big Sister very slowly piece it all together, but it does bother me that this is supposed to be the big a-ha moment that potentially marks a turning point for humanity. I just don’t buy it. There are numerous news clippings around the movie that say things like “the military is defeated” or “the creatures are indestructible”. You mean to tell me that no one experimented with sound frequencies on the creatures that are really just a big ear with talons? Really? It’s just too convenient. Whatever the frequency really does to them, it leaves them vulnerable to the tried and true shotgun-blast-to-the-face and finally, we have a dead monster and a cathartic moment for the family. Only it’s stupid and not in the fun way where the whole movie could have been kind of heightened and silly, but in a way that exposes its earlier self-seriousness and commitment as farcical and poorly thought out. Pick a lane, movie.

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Just a man and his corn.

Someone will inevitably argue that the whole thing with keeping the basement a secret from Big Sister (kind of? it’s muddled) and the experiments with the hearing aids is a sign that Dad had an endgame all along. While it’s clear he has been trying to figure things out, I don’t believe this theory at all even though, as far as I know, I just came up with it to make a rhetorical point.

We see him working on contacting other shortwave radios and though he has a lot of media gear, it’s consistent with a dude trying to stay in touch with a declining outside world. I don’t think he planned for his deaf daughter’s hearing aid to save the world because that would imply someone in the world is loony tunes and creative enough to weaponize hearing aids which would be exactly the kind of genre-savvy-self-aware-silliness that should have been more common in this movie if they wanted that shotgun wink ending to truly work as intended. And I mean, there’s A Quiet Place for you. Always getting in its own way. If that is supposed to be the case, why veil it?

I’m not saying that this should have been a sillier movie, by the way, just that it should have been a more consistent one. I would take a third act that felt like it went with the first two more readily than I would want it the other way around. As it is, A Quiet Place is half a movie I liked and half a dumb mess that can’t decide whether it knows it or not. It’s the kind of movie that births long arguments with friends, so I have those to look forward to as more people see it. If you feel like taking my view on, go ahead and leave a comment and we’ll see if I can be convinced that I missed something or I’m being too harsh on this one.

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