A Quiet Place (2018): the horror of silence

A Quiet Place, directed by and starring John Krasinski, is not a silent movie, but it is a movie that revolves around silence. It made me think about what sound gives to a movie, and what it takes away. Krasinski’s co-writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who originated the idea, say that they watched a lot of silent films in college, but their excellent horror film made me ponder silent film presentation rather than production. In fact, I kept thinking about a recent, controversial score for a 1920s movie, and what the purpose of music and sound is in a film.

Hitchcock said that one mark of a good film is that you can follow it with the sound turned off, and that is certainly true of A Quiet Place. Our heroes are a family of five, led by Krasinski and his real-wife wife Emily Blunt. Their daughter is played by Millicent Simmonds, the young deaf actress who is every bit as remarkable here as she was in Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, and her little brother is played by Noah Jupe, whom you may have seen in The Night Manager or Suburbicon. The premise, as with the best horror movies, is both simple and devastating. New York State has been left desolate after an influx of seemingly indestructible monsters. They’re blind, but highly sensitive to sound, so staying silent is the only way to stay alive.

The opening sequence, in which the family raid a deserted drugstore for supplies, illustrates their survival strategy. The cast go barefoot, move slowly and deliberately, and communicate only via sign language (subtitled for those viewers who don’t read it). There are just two intertitles, counting the days since the invasion. Because the scenario unfolds so neatly with so little spoken or audible dialogue, much has been made of the film’s clever visual exposition, though that may be laying it on a bit thick. There’s a whiteboard back at the family’s base camp with helpful notes writ large, and a selection of carefully curated headlines from the New York Post pinned up alongside it.

A Quiet Place (2018)
A Quiet Place (2018)

Still, watching the family make a life without sound – cooking, parenting, playing,  scavenging, and eating smoked fish off kale leaves – has a certain fascination. There’s a Swiss Family Robinson quality to the way they live, and with a queasy pragmatism, prepare for the birth of a new child. In this scenario, Simmonds’s hearing aid becomes more of an alarm, and sound insulation the best kind of protection. It’s a high-concept horror, in the vein of Signs, say, and when I learned that at one point the writers considered wrapping this story into the Cloverfield franchise, I wasn’t at all surprised.

What’s more interesting is what the lack of sound does for the film. Most silent film viewers will have seen a film in complete silence before. It’s often quite disconcerting, and it means the film has to work harder to keep our attention, or to sustain a mood. Here there is very little and very selective sound – it’s stripped back far enough that if you saw it at the cinema you would regret buying popcorn, and be aware of every shift and cough in the auditorium. Non-diegetic music is used extremely sparingly, and for obvious reasons diegetic music only appears once and even then, it is restricted. When Blunt listens to music on her earphones, we don’t hear it until she shares one earpiece with Krasinski – then they dance together, listening to ‘Harvest Moon’.

A Quiet Place (2018)
A Quiet Place (2018)

It’s bizarre, in practice, to have so little sound in a new, mainstream movie. Especially perhaps in a horror movie, where unnerving, dynamic sound design is used so much, and where screams can offer catharsis. Aside from music and dialogue, foley work in Hollywood films is so strong these days, that mundane actions such as brushing on mascara and eating apples become rich, sensory experiences. With voices barely raised above a whisper and every accidental noise a risk, A Quiet Place contains few such pleasures. As a result, it’s rather brilliant at building tension – you’re uncomfortable for so much of the film anyway, and when the violent climaxes come, the sense is more of clammy panic than blockbuster action. It must have been tense to make, too: on set, the crew had to remain quiet, so the diegetic noises could be amplified later. Krasinski was kinder to his audience, though, saying that he added the music so viewers wouldn’t feel trapped in a “silence experiment”.

A Quiet Place made me think about an Austrian silent film I saw at the Barbican recently, The City Without Jews (1924), with a live score composed by Olga Neuwirth. I had written about the film, so I had seen it twice before, in complete silence as a digital download. Like A Quiet Place, it imagines a terrible future, but unlike A Quiet Place, the future it imagines is terribly plausible, and it’s a satire not a horror. Satire is a comfort, really, offering us enough distance to laugh at terrible things. Because we know better, because we can see what’s happening. The subject of The City Without Jews is the terrible crescendo of anti-semitism in the early 20th century that led to the rise of fascism and the crimes of the holocaust. In The City Without Jews, during an economic depression, prejudice is mobilised to expel the Jewish population from a place very like Vienna. The portents are unbearably grim.

The City Without Jews/Die Stadt Ohne Juden at the Barbican in 2018
The City Without Jews/Die Stadt Ohne Juden (1924) at the Barbican in 2018

When I saw the film at the Barbican, I was denied the comfort of satire. Neuwirth’s score was relentlessly challenging:  complex and very bleak even in the film’s early, lighter moments, or those scenes in which prejudice is lampooned. In this brilliant interview with the Guardian, Neuwirth says: “When I was writing the score, I had to suppress my rage or else the film would have had music which is just an expression of my fury.” And yet in every moment I felt her guidance, steering me away from watching a clever comedy, about terrible events in the distant past, and towards confronting the obscene facts of prejudice and human cruelty. “Antisemitism is in the DNA of Austrians,” she says in that piece. “Maybe it skipped a generation but now it’s back – along with hatred for refugees.” Here’s a typically astute review from Paul Joyce.

Some people I spoke to were unhappy with Neuwirth’s score, and I can sympathise with that. It was an uncomfortable night. Where she used recognisable melodies they were almost entirely distorted – the music was edgy and atonal. However, it made me consider again the purpose of silent film accompaniment. Should it be to make it easier for us to absorb and enjoy the film? Perhaps so. But to wash over its jarring or difficult sequences? Perhaps not. Maybe sometimes there is a value in a score that tells you not to laugh at a joke because it isn’t funny any more, that flat-out contradicts one aspect of a film. No doubt, that is not always required (I can think of some examples), but with certain films, maybe we would benefit from being caught in a “silence experiment”? I thought I knew The City Without Jews, but Neuwirth’s score made me think again. She said the most powerful scene for her was the heartbreaking image of “the Jews walking out of Vienna as it’s gathering dusk”, and she made that scene’s presence felt through the entire film.

A Quiet Place is aiming for a similar kind of discomfort, solely in the name of creating effective horror cinema, which it achieves. The tropes of horror – the action beats, suspense, final confrontations – are a kind of solace too, just as much as satire. The massacre scenario in A Quiet Place would be awful to contemplate, as would the family’s own smaller tragedies, without the scaffolding of the horror genre reminding us that we are watching a movie. Taking out some, but not all of the sound, only undermines that generic scaffolding a touch. How would it play out without the solace of those snatches of non-diegetic music, or without Blunt and Krasinski dancing blissfully to Neil Young in their basement? As the director intuited, it would be far more difficult to watch.

There is no comparison between these two films of course, but the sight of Blunt soothing a baby without a lullaby, or Krasinski persuading his very young son not to play with a flashy, noisy toy, raises a question about the consolation of sound and the horror of silence. It’s a question that Neuwirth made me think about too, and she has shifted the way I think about silent film accompaniment. As the pleasures of film sound and music offer far more than narrative exposition, the “silence experiment” can often yield powerful results.

  • You voted A Quiet Place as your favourite modern silent (or nearest equivalent) of 2018 in the Silent London Poll.
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