Monday, April 9, 2018

In a world where farts are against the law, one woman rises


It's a piece of crap that's better-looking than most pieces of crap, but that doesn't change its fundamental nature, and how anyone deigns to call this piece of crap "innovative," or even merely "scary," rather than "frustrating" and "unbelievably contemptuous"—not to mention "almost worryingly inhumane"—is beyond my ability to understand.

Directed by John Krasinski
Written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski
With Emily Blunt (Evelyn Abbott), John Krasinski (Lee Abbott), Millicent Simmonds (Regan Abbott), Noah Jupe (Marcus Abbott), and Cade Woodward (Beau Abbott)

Spoiler alert: high

It was inevitable, I suppose, and the biggest surprise is that it even took this long for the wave of Sophisticated Art Horror that started in or around 2013 to be subverted, pretty much totally, by Dumb Old Regular Horror dressed up in Sophisticated Art Horror clothes; though that surprise is augmented, no doubt, by the distressing fact that hardly anybody seems to have noticed the switch.

Now, I've not exactly been the biggest booster of that aforementioned wave—Under the Skin, It Follows, The Witch, and so forth—but that doesn't mean I couldn't still admire it.  Like any wave it's naturally had its peaks (Ex Machina) and troughs (Under the Skin), and all throughout it's been respectable in its aspirations, even when it was (Under the Skin) almost wholly unlikeable and stupid.

A Quiet Place is also almost wholly unlikeable and stupid, of course, and appears to have received its breathless praise mostly for taking aim at a very interesting, almost-impossible-to-pull-off premise, which we find not-pulled-off within what A Quiet Place's director/screenwriter/star/husband-of-actual-star John Krasinki surely reckoned was an even more-interesting formal conceit: a post-apocalyptic milieu where near-complete silence has been enforced upon the world by a swarm of blind carnivorous monsters from parts unknown who hunt solely by sound.  Anything above a pin drop will draw the monsters' hunger, and you can easily imagine the possibilities of that—indeed, likely better than John Krasinski and his co-screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck did.

In this world, noisome humankind has been whittled down to almost nothing, so far as we can tell—with a couple of unimportant exceptions, the only people we ever see still managing to survive are the Abbott family, heralded as such only by the name on the mailbox outside the house they now live in (though the credits spoil any ambiguity you thought might have been inherent to this set-up).  Headed by a husband and wife whom those credits inform us are named Lee and Evelyn, we catch up with the Abbotts as they soundlessly scavenge a nearby small town.  Let us note that the Abbott clan initially contains a slightly-higher-than-average number of children, and the reasons for Lee and Evelyn's slightly-higher-than-average fecundity shall soon become exceedingly, and perhaps-insultingly, clear.

A little over a year later, the Abbotts have resisted dwindling any further: son Marcus and daughter Regan (the eldest, and deaf) persist, though Regan blames herself for the tragedy that befell her other brother.  However, while Lee has the wherewithal to fiddle with a broken cochlear device that may or may not restore Regan's hearing, he has neither time nor inclination to fiddle with her guilt complex, especially when the family's efforts are being directed mostly toward figuring out a way to make it safe for a new addition, for Evelyn, we see, is now extremely pregnant—four-hundred odd days, as a very unwelcome intertitle states, after the end of the world.

It is possible, just barely possible, to continue to take A Quiet Place seriously after you see Emily Blunt walking around in her bare feet with her fake pregnancy belly, though A Quiet Place has no intention of making that easy: you're both shocked and not all that surprised to learn that the original drafts of the film's screenplay simply had her pregnant at the outset.  Shocked, because this is lean and elegant and makes sense, and changing it was profoundly idiotic; yet not shocked, because you realize, in the same moment, that the screenplay itself wasn't rewritten in the slightest way in order to accommodate this major, major change.  (It's almost plausible it wasn't written down at all; it is the second-act intertitle alone that demands you accept that the woman you saw in the prologue wasn't already pregnant then.)

There is, it needs to be said, an awful lot wrong with A Quiet Place, so were I to claim "this is the worst aspect of it," I've got two or three others that could feasibly take its place; best not to make it a competition.  It is, anyway, enough to say that this late-breaking change emphasizes A Quiet Place's foundational flaw, which is that it refuses to comprehend that the world  it wants us to believe in is not only more-or-less unsurviveable, but nearly impossible to call worth surviving in.  Even giving the film the benefit of the doubt is hard, mostly because it simply doesn't earn it otherwise, but also because while Krasinski has made noises to the effect that A Quiet Place is a movie about the human drive for "normalcy" even in the worst of situations, this says a great deal more about the limits of Krasinki's definition of "normal," and his ability to empathize with his characters, than it does human beings generally.  A Quiet Place never once seeks to make an actual argument in this regard—its best attempt is a piece of violent shorthand with the only non-Abbotts in the movie, that Krasinski likely (but incorrectly) feels is the key to unlocking his allegory.  It doesn't even wish away the bad thoughts; it just assumes they aren't there.

So: in much the same way that Evelyn and Lee do not discuss this pregnancy or its implications—in much the same way that it is never once remotely clear if it was even a moronic decision, rather than the result of a moronic accident—A Quiet Place is terrified above all of considering, for even a moment, the hopelessness of the Abbotts' situation.  In its failure of nerve, it offers one of the most dehumanized, inaccessible collections of characters in recent memory; even saying they are reduced to their stock roles in a heteronormative nuclear family feels like it's giving the film too much credit, and heteronormative nuclear families not enough.  (Though it absolutely does reduce them thusly, and as aggressively as it possibly could, to the extent that A Quiet Place brings with it a very heady whiff of survivalist porn.  I genuinely wonder if leaning into this might've been more interesting than the featureless family we actually get: say what you will about the tenets of Christian forced-breeding, Dude, at least it's an ethos.)

Actors, presumably decent ones, are pounded into the dirt, their performances technically adept but given no leeway to be good or bad.  Blunt, in particular, though awarded the best-built horror sequences by default—she being the pregnant one—gives little sign that she's any better than her husband's material (even though she is), simply because there's nothing in Evelyn for her to rise above or to fall below.

And, anyway, A Quiet Place is completely impossible to take seriously, once she gives birth in what appears to be about half an hour.

That's the other problem: it is insane what this movie thinks it can get away with (it's gobsmacking that the birth is one scene, rather than the whole damn second half of the film).  It's even more insane what this movie has gotten away with, based on the critic-bait of Krasinki's self-imposed recourse to a nominally-pure form of visual storytelling.  (But then, that really says too much, doesn't it?  While it is technically correct to call subtitled American Sign Language "visual storytelling," it's obviously abusing the term: as far as I can tell, it mainly means you have to rethink how many medium shots are desirable in a conversation scene, which Krasinski only barely does.)  Meanwhile, the notion of a horror film with long bouts of eerie, suspenseful silence is not exactly a novel one in itself, even if the extended nature of the ones seen here (and the casting of deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, or the only clever bit of implication in the film, that it's her deafness that allowed her family to survive in the first place) makes it noteworthy.  But the actual techniques employed here are every inch bog-standard shit, regardless of how many times critics say that the movie dives into character subjectivity with its (inconsistent) treatment of sound in combination with Regan's deafness, as if this particular trick has never, ever been deployed before, and is a sign of high art, rather than the sort of thing you can literally find in 80s schlock about car thieves if you look.   So, believe it or not, A Quiet Place is a horror movie where things loom unnoticed in an out-of-focus background, and people have to sneak around without making noise.  And if that strikes you as unprecedented, have I got one hell of an exposition-laden whiteboard plus a wall full of newspaper articles to show you, helpfully reminding the Abbotts of all the things they'd otherwise forget, like the three monsters outside, the monsters' super-hearing, and how it would be totally great if they could just find their (all-caps) "WEAKNESS?"

These worn-to-the-nub techniques are in service to some unmitigated fucking nonsense, of which Evelyn's magical labor is only the most salient example; whatever virtues Krasinki demonstrates as a choreographer of human props, and there's some genuine talent there, especially with the littler details of his silent Earth, he's one abominable foreshadower.  Refer back to poor Beau Abbott, the Expendable One, sacrificed in a scene that would be indistinguishable from the result of an algorithm programmed with Jaws and Assault on Precinct 13 and designed to trick you into believing that A Quiet Place shall be a bitter, uncompromising, even nihilistic look at the end of this world (and because it did work on that level of show-the-bomb Hitchcockian suspense, I'm still happy calling it the best scene in the film, algorithmic or not).  Well, A Quiet Place ends as it began, though it ends hardly halfway through:  in a movie where the monsters' dominance is assured by the sensitivity of their hearing, it becomes a pretty tedious exercise in waiting for the finale once Regan's cochlear implant starts fritzing out in their presence and causing them pain, which occurs at roughly the forty-five minute mark.  The movie does retain the capacity to surprise, however—to the extent I nearly cried out in the theater at the denouement, "Wait, guns work?!", this being precisely the kind of immersion-breaking hard-ask that you don't want at the end of a movie that's already suspending your disbelief with fraying dental floss.

(I did not cry out, of course, but it's worth mentioning the unintended consequences of making a movie without a lot of noise in it: what exactly do you think happens when you market a movie with virtually no spoken dialogue and another intentionally-lazy Marco Beltrami half-score to the audience that sees wide-release horror films?  This is a question nobody asked, though they certainly should have; even in the happiest scenario, which I did not personally get, what you'll hear isn't so much silence as it is the sound of your fellow patrons' rumbly tummies.)

If A Quiet Place is not the worst possible version of itself, it's because sometimes its editor, legit journeyman Christopher Tellefsen, puts its scenes together with the kind of competence and intensity that covers up how stupid they can be, and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen certainly shoots a tremendously handsome movie, taking her cues from 80s horror in ways big and small (often in cliche ways, like the beasties from beyond the focal plane—but the old stuff works), along with some bold lighting schemes that I can't pin to any direct influence and a surplus of strikingly-designed symmetrical shots (yeah, I am crediting the experienced cinematographer, not the untested director, and the silver lining of A Quiet Place is that it makes me feel way less racist about saying the same thing about Jordan Peele).  The monsters themselves look tolerably cool, rendered with some pretty decent CGI (they're unavoidably reminiscent of Stranger Things, sure, not to even mention Alien, and between the cornfield from Signs and the blind monsters from After Earth—and the general dumb dourness and pseudo-Christianity of the piece—you could start getting the sinking feeling you might be watching a secret M. Night joint).

Well, regardless: while Tellefsen and Christensen and the fun creatures keep it watchable, there is no dismissing how awful so much of A Quiet Place ends up.  It is more full of unforced errors than just about any movie I can name: the baffling shrug it throws at its apocalyptic pregnancy; the garbage sci-fi resolution that would feel at home (and doubtless come off more charming) in a 50s B-movie; the weird sexual agenda you perceive beneath the paper-thin surfaces of the characters; its perverse unwillingness to interrogate the despair of its own premise; the very conception of its monsters as basic animals that, it turns out, are very easy to trick and almost as easy to gun down, yet have somehow conquered the fucking Earth; the total lack of fart scenes.  The list really does go on.  A Quiet Place is never about itself, it's barely about anything else, and it should be almost impossible not to hate—yet here we are.  It's critically-acclaimed and commercially successful. It's this year's Split, I guess, but even with Split I never felt like everyone else must've literally been watching a different movie.

Score:  3/10


  1. I noticed the exact same flaws as you, but I synthesized them into a much higher score. Call this my Ready Player One, because this crap is definitely more in my wheelhouse.

    And I was certainly not as bothered by the pregnancy nonsense as you, maybe because I mostly occupied my time by imagining the extremely quiet sex that must have occurred to make it happen.

    1. I was imagining the conversation (silent or otherwise) the film eschews, about the non-existent grieving process that led to a decision to replace the broken item with a new one from Evelyn's baby factory.

      And I dunno if it's your RP1. You never go completely bananas, and throw a 10/10 at movies you have a hard time explaining why they affected you so much. (9/10s, maybe. Did I ever tell you my girlfriend thinks everyone who loves La La Land is crazy? In other words, you know, everyone else who saw La La Land at all.)

    2. Hey, I won't hear a word against La La Land. But sometimes I DO find it hard to justify my 9/10 reviews of, say, Horns, or Big Hero 6...

    3. Big Hero 6 is great, tho. Horns, uh, maybe you're on your own.

  2. Also yeah, Split was terrible. We can agree on that one.

    1. At least Split was self-consciously daffy...

      ...well, I think it might've been self-conscious.

  3. Also I'm not gonna say no to a burly, bearded John Krasinski. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    1. So I never watched The Office because it looked like a drag, and so I have no prior reference frame for the man. But, in researching this, I found pictures of him without a beard and--yeah, the beard is the way to go.