Boosters of the Hudson Valley have been talking for decades, literally, about what a great place this is, or could be, to shoot movies. Remember all the talk about how the Paul Newman vehicle Nobody’s Fool was going to turn the tide? That was shot in Beacon in 1993 and ’94. Well, it took nearly a quarter-century and some tweaks to state tax law, but it finally seems to be happening – to the great delight of locals who make their livings providing ancillary services to the film industry, or who can later sell a sandwich or a beer to the kind of visitor who seeks out movie-location vacations. In this age of selfies, such cinetourists are becoming legion.
As it turns out, the breakthrough movie to put the Hudson Valley on the map is a horror film: John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, which took in more than $50 million at the domestic box office on its opening weekend alone (it only cost $17 million to make). Critical buzz has been strong since its premiere at SXSW in March. Mid-Hudson Valley residents might be turning out to see any movie with recognizable locations – here, a farmhouse in Pawling, a market in Beacon, the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail bridge in New Paltz – but it’s something of a novel experience to find that this one is the movie that seemingly everybody, everywhere, is talking about at the moment.
Is A Quiet Place really that good, beyond the frisson of seeing on a big screen that spot where you’ve often gone bicycling? Look hard enough and you’ll find implausible details to quibble about, but yes: It’s a solid, well-made, well-acted monster movie, a very taut (only 90 minutes) thriller with engaging characters and a narrative core firmly grounded in family dynamics. Richard Brody over at The New Yorker has discerned in it a regressive metaphor for white rural people feeling besieged by dark foreign Others, but that doesn’t seem to be a widely accepted reading. (It’s a bit of a stretch to complain about an all-white cast when it comprises a grand total of nine, one of the characters being already dead when glimpsed and two of the actors being twins portraying a newborn.)
The question that goes to the gut in A Quiet Place is simply, “How do we protect our children when the world is such a dangerous place?” In this particular cinematic universe, it has become so on account of the arrival of hordes of hungry aliens with bulletproof carapaces and hearing/echolocation skills as fine-tuned as those of bats. But any parent knows that our world has always been full of threats to the young and unwary, and occasionally wonders if it was wise ever to bring children into it. Within the family unit we develop strategies to protect them, only to discover over time that such approaches must be dynamic as our offspring grow and demand more freedom to explore and become their own persons.
In A Quiet Place, the pivotal character is Regan (Millicent Simmonds), a daughter who is approaching puberty and somewhat overprotected by her parents (Krasinski and his wife Emily Blunt) on account of the fact that she is deaf. Regan’s more timid younger sibling Marcus (Noah Jupe) is the one pressed to accompany Dad on fishing expeditions while she is left at home with very pregnant Mom. Regan’s burgeoning rebellion is a beautiful thing to watch, this young deaf actress easily stealing the spotlight from the far-more-famous-and-experienced thespians portraying her parents.
What makes this film clever and cinematically distinctive is its spare, selective use of sound, most of it diagetic (generated and perceived in-world). There is almost no spoken dialogue, except when masked from hostile ears by the sound of rushing water. Regan’s “disability” is her family’s strength in more ways than one, as they are able to communicate and cooperate well via fluency in ASL (which is subtitled), and also because of her unique insights into how to outmaneuver the beasties. Scenes depicted from the daughter’s point of view have a perfectly silent soundtrack, inviting the viewer more deeply into her reality. The enforced quiet of this family’s existence makes the jump scares – usually precipitated by an unintended noise – especially nervewracking. Marco Beltrami’s musical score occasionally lays the strings on a bit too thickly, but we are compensated by its infrequent application.
With little to distract us in the way of verbal emoting or exposition, the audience is freed up to focus on visual narrative details, such as the fact that the Abbott family marks particular floorboards that don’t creak with duct tape, or the stealthy and purposeful toe-first way that they’ve all learned to walk. Like any truly persuasive fantasy universe, this one plays strictly by its own internal rules – rules based, in this case, in the real-world physics of sound. In A Quiet Place, limitations on storytelling vocabulary become the movie’s strengths. It’s a fascinating technical exercise that works because we care about the characters.
Okay, and seeing that familiar footbridge over the Wallkill is pretty damn cool as well. Gotta wonder how much additional traffic it’ll be bearing henceforward…