By Brewer Eberly
It’s difficult to be silent about A Quiet Place—Paramount’s recent creature-feature directed by and starring John Krasinski (yes, Jim Halpert from The Office) and his wife, Emily Blunt (Sicario, Edge of Tomorrow, The Devil Wears Prada). A Quiet Place currently boasts the best opening ever for an “original horror film.” It has been celebrated as smart, original, and something of a horror and storytelling masterpiece—honoring the genre while also offering a few lessons on the power of lean, focused storytelling. Even Stephen King loved it.
The premise is straightforward: A Quiet Place is the story of one family struggling to survive among the mysterious arrival of creatures that are blind, relentlessly predatory, and attack sound. [Heavy spoilers ahead.]
Sound and silence are central to the world of A Quiet Place, making the soundtrack itself participatory. The lack of spoken dialogue forces the audience to hear themselves fidget and breath, and this intensifies our sense of the consequences—not only of the characters’ noises, but of our own. “Please silence your cell phone” brings on a whole new meaning.
The creatures—genuinely intimidating designs somewhere between the Demogorgon from Stranger Things and a praying mantis—are nicknamed “angels of death” by the apocalyptic newspapers peppering the background. These death-angels arrive to hunt us—the noise-makers. It’s the sort of fever dream we might expect from Wendell Berry, reminding us that the noises of modernity are endangering our lives and communities, and it may take something divinely terrifying to wake us up to that reality.
Isaiah stills his tongue as he encounters an angel who tells of destruction. Zechariah is cast silent by an angel prophesying his son who will die pointing to the Son who will die. And Elijah doesn’t find God in the rush of the wind or the rumbling noises of the quacking earth, but in qol demamah daqqah, “a gentle whisper”—or as Ellen F. Davis beautifully translates it—the “sound of a finely textured silence.” God and His angelic creatures sometimes speak to us in speechlessness and silence when we are suffering from the noisiness of self and clamor of sin.
In the spirit of that silence, A Quiet Place echoes something like monastic tradition. Survival is found in following strict rules that feel more like liturgical lifelines (walking barefoot, using sign language). In one intimate scene, the family gathers around a plateless dinner table, quietly join their hands, bow their heads, close their eyes, and pray without words. In 2018, that might be the most compelling secular vision of “Be still and know that I am God” one can find in a movie. It’s anchoritic—a reminder that the monastic move toward isolation was not a repression to escape the world, but a reorientation in order to love God and attend to Creation. If modernity says look inward to your own identity and love yourself, Christianity says look inward to your own soul to then love others. The monastic journey is a journey inward in order to go outward—a retreat to silence in order to listen to God and the suffering of others we’re unable to hear in the deafening roars of our own self-promotion, distractions, and entertainment.
This attunement to others is reflected in the film’s celebration of self-sacrificial love. The father sacrifices himself (with a loud cry) to protect his children. In the conclusion, it is an unexpected sacrifice from the deaf daughter that ultimately brings hope (an arresting performance from actress Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf in reality). But it may be the self-sacrifice of motherhood that is most powerful in A Quiet Place.
Early on, we discover that the mother (played by Emily Blunt) is pregnant. We’re shown her nesting, preparing a humble place where her newborn might go. We see her hang a mobile, check her blood pressure, and we share the look of concern in her eyes—how could her birth in a sound-poisoned world possibly succeed? We watch her plug a tiny oxygen mask into a tank of medical grade O2 before placing it into a small, blanketed box—with a lid.
I couldn’t help but think, is this going to end in some sort of infanticide mercy killing? Is that really oxygen, or a repurposed medical tank of some palliative ether? After all, it could be argued that in this post-apocalyptic world, the mother shouldn’t have gotten pregnant in the first place. Perhaps it was an accident of love, but even then, an early homeopathic abortion might have been the wisest available option, knowing that the normal course of labor will render the mother docile to the inevitable intrapartum noises of crying and screaming. Why take that chance and risk destroying not only her newborn but herself and her entire family?
Probably because it makes for good movie-making—but also, because it portrays profound love. We find a subtle argument not necessarily “against abortion,” but for the welcoming of new life under circumstances that would otherwise justify the destruction of it. This mother and family welcome new life into an impossible situation with considerable imagination and planning. In A Quiet Place, one of the key principles is that louder sounds mask smaller sounds. So do greater loves mask smaller self-loves.
Emily Blunt’s character muses “Who are we if we can’t protect our children?” but then subverts her own existentialism by choosing the very thing that almost guarantees her children won’t be protected—childbirth. Labor ensues and a baby is born under escalating scenes of genuine terror. An oxygen mask keeps the newborn alive while father and mother close it in the sound-proof box we saw earlier. We thought they were crafting a coffin, but they were building a manger.
Of course, A Quiet Place is not without skeptics. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody calls it “silently regressive”—an inversion of last year’s horror masterpiece, Get Out. A Quiet Place is just a movie about a bunch of white people terrified of being heard and mauled by the dark others.
I can’t help but wonder if this mother’s actions would be characterized as equally regressive by our cultural critics—a pregnant woman afraid of doing what she should do for her own self-protection and the protection of her family is forced into a fearful pregnancy by the violent, regressive forces of those who would seek to silence her voice and the voices of all women.
Maybe. Or maybe A Quiet Place isn’t so much regressive as ingressive—calling us further up and further in to the difficult, core realities of living: family, sacrifice, new life. It helps that Krasinski (who grew up Catholic) has stated that A Quiet Place is “a love letter to [his] kids.” It hints at a sort of love letter to all of us as children of the Living God, reminding us that, as Blunt’s character says, “Your father will always protect you. Always.” And as Krasinski’s character says in sign language before his death, “I love you. I have always loved you.”
If 2017’s Logan was the peak of superhero cinema, it’s because the producers told the truth, committing to the real consequences of the violence we’ve grown accustomed to in today’s superhero cinematic deluge, all while offering compelling visions for the simple, brutal beauties of family and fatherhood. Logan was somehow both incredibly violent and incredibly moving (and, remained a superhero movie).
A Quiet Place does something similar for horror, committing to real risks both in the story and in the making of the movie itself while honoring the quiet, simple truths of silence and self-sacrificial love. It is both violent and moving (and, a thrilling horror film)—a quiet reminder that we already live in a violent, noise-poisoned age where the creatures that hunt us might well be undone by the quiet, attentive, ordinary acts of hope, family, and love.
John Brewer Eberly, Jr. MD is a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and a fellow of the Theology, Medicine, & Culture Fellowship at Duke Divinity School. He plans to practice obstetrics and gynecology, and is interested in theological perspectives in medical ethics, medical student formation, and the philosophy of beauty. His writing has appeared in JAMA, Academic Medicine, Hektoen International, Doximity, First Things, Mere Orthodoxy, and KevinMD.