Words by Edward Weech
“Who are we, if we can’t protect them? Who are we? You have to protect them. Promise me… you will protect them.”Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt), ‘A Quiet Place’ (2018)
Language is a distinctively human trait, and how we use language reveals much about our condition. One of the few ultrasocial species in nature, we’ve evolved complex systems of communication which improve our chances of living harmoniously in large social groups alongside people who are not related to us by blood.
A Quiet Place (2018) explores how people use different kinds of language to maintain the bonds that tie them together; and what happens to those bonds when our linguistic freedom becomes curtailed. The film’s central motif is the restriction of speech which, for most people, is not only central to their interactions with family and friends: it’s also a creative process which helps us articulate our thoughts and feelings, thereby making sense of our pasts, our fears, and our desires. Curtailing speech can stunt personal growth, but it has serious consequences beyond the private sphere, as well.
A Quiet Place depicts a world where not only speech, but any noise at all, is taboo. The story unfolds in the shadow of a global apocalypse, and mankind has been usurped as the dominant species by an alien lifeform whose sway over the planet is yet more tyrannical and arbitrary than our own. These monsters have aural hyper-sensitivity, which is how they identify prey. But because their power makes speech impossible, it also serves as a mechanism of censorship which, by preventing the sharing of ideas and information, helps maintain their dominance.
In this new reality, even the faintest sound invites swift and inevitable demise. This fact is revealed in shocking fashion at the end of the very first scene, which begins with a family sifting through the debris of an abandoned pharmacy, in an abandoned town. If not for the surprising detail that everyone is barefoot, it might be drearily reminiscent of any number of zombie genre films. Leaving the town and calmly crossing a bridge which, the viewer imagines, might lead to pastoral safety, the youngest child – not much more than a toddler – activates a loud toy. As his terrified father sprints to reach him, the child is brutally swept away by an unknown creature that erupts from the forest like a fairy-tale monster.
Even with the power of speech, accurately conveying complicated thoughts and feelings is rarely straightforward; and even under the most favourable circumstances, the relationship between parents and children during the developmental teenage years is fraught with uncertainty and conflicting emotions.
Directed, starring, and co-written by John Krasinski (Lee Abbott), and co-starring Emily Blunt (Evelyn Abbott), A Quiet Place tells the story of the Abbott family a year after this defining tragedy. We see them going about their daily lives in silence, still trying to piece themselves together after an experience which, for them, is literally unutterable. Filmed amid the rural environs of upstate New York, global civilisation appears to have collapsed, and communication with the outside world seems impossible. But the family members still have each other, and the Abbotts have become self-reliant, feeding themselves from the produce of a nearby river and their own farm, whose perimeter they carefully guard for fear of marauding intruders.
The eldest Abbott child, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), is deaf, and the family are practised in American Sign Language. This means they are better equipped than most would be to communicate under similar circumstances. But even with the power of speech, accurately conveying complicated thoughts and feelings is rarely straightforward; and even under the most favourable circumstances, the relationship between parents and children during the developmental teenage years is fraught with uncertainty and conflicting emotions. The father-daughter relationship between Lee and Regan has become particularly strained, and Regan fears she is secretly blamed for her brother’s death.
Krasinski has spoken poignantly about the film’s central theme of parenthood, and its relevance to the bond he shares with his wife, Blunt, and their young family. In other circumstances, knowledge of their real-world relationship might overshadow the on-screen drama. But the naturalistic humility of the lead performances instead adds special gravitas to the scenes they share with each other and the Abbott children, Regan and Marcus (Noah Jupe).
For Lee and Evelyn, protecting their children amid their fallen world is an all-consuming purpose, a challenge which draws completely on the courage and ingenuity of both parents. And, a year after seeing their youngest son ripped away before their eyes, they find themselves tested once again. Evelyn is heavily pregnant, and the Abbotts are faced with the dilemma of bringing a new child into a world where any sound — let alone the crying of a babe — could lead to disaster. The clear-eyed and conscientious manner in which they seek to prepare for the child’s birth, notwithstanding the great hazards it involves, renders it an ultimate expression of love.
Their dogged determination to keep having children, despite the intense hostility of the outside world, contrasts with the practical calculations which modern culture presses upon working parents weighing up the trade-offs that procreation implies for their careers and general lifestyle.
Considering contemporary enthusiasms for critiquing the nuclear family, there is subversive courage in A Quiet Place’s unassuming depiction of the Abbotts as a warm and loving unit where mother and father fulfil traditional gender roles. In their world, the social “rat race” for wealth, status, and prestige has disappeared; and Lee and Evelyn are relatively free to devote themselves to family life. Their dogged determination to keep having children, despite the intense hostility of the outside world, contrasts with the practical calculations which modern culture presses upon working parents weighing up the trade-offs that procreation implies for their careers and general lifestyle. It is more suggestive of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage, as articulated by Saint Augustine:
[T]he difference between the restraint of the marriage alliance, contracted for the purpose of having children, and a bargain struck for lust, in which the birth of children is begrudged, though, if they come, we cannot help but love them.Confessions of Saint Augustine, ca. 400 AD
Lee and Evelyn understand that their overwhelming desire to protect their children is in tension with the reality Krasinski has voiced elsewhere: “At some point, you have to let your kids get hurt.” This is at odds with the modern mantra of “safetyism” decried by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in the book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018): “A culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.” Evelyn has to challenge the anxious pleading for safety voiced by her terrified son (“Please don’t make me go”), when she persuades him to go with his father and explore the world beyond the farmstead. She explains that he must learn how to survive:
Listen to me, it’s important that you learn these things. He just wants you to be able to take care of yourself, to take care of me, when I’m old, and grey, and I have no teeth. Don’t worry.
The painful fact that a parent cannot always protect their child is made savagely clear in the film’s opening scene. Perhaps the child was too young to understand the rules that might have saved him; while Evelyn agonises over the idea that she should have been carrying him in her own arms. In a cosmic sense, the child’s fate is certainly “unfair”, not only for him but also for his anguished parents and siblings, who are left carrying a profound sense of loss, guilt, and failure. But the inexorable tragedy of human life is that suffering and culpability are often in wild disproportion. Hollywood itself has given us many iconic statements of this awful reality, voiced by Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) before his execution of Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) in Unforgiven (1992): “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
The family unit has become the be-all and end-all of daily life, and the source of fulfilment for all material and emotional needs. To that extent, the family therefore assumes the position of absolute primacy which it likely held for all humans before the development of larger units of social organisation.
Under any circumstances, the loss of a child stretches human endurance to its limits. After the demise of human civilisation, the Abbotts cannot even find solace with their own parents and extended families; their friends, church, or anything else. They must cling to each other. The family unit has become the be-all and end-all of daily life, and the source of fulfilment for all material and emotional needs. To that extent, the family therefore assumes the position of absolute primacy which it likely held for all humans before the development of larger units of social organisation.
Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges was a nineteenth-century historian who, having examined the earliest writings of Ancient Greece, developed a vision of the prehistoric family as a sacred institution. In those days, the family was not only the means for supplying life’s material needs, but also the source of personal identity. The family was “The basic unit of social reality”:
Nothing could legitimately violate its domain. Fustel argues that this reflected a prehistoric period when the family, more or less extended, was the only social institution, long before the growth of cities and governments. Beating the bounds of the family domain was understood as establishing not just a physical but also a moral frontier. Outside that frontier were strangers and enemies.Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual (2014)
The Abbotts embody values from their now-extinct culture which are substantially more humane than those which shaped the morality of the hierarchical prehistoric family. Their domestic interactions reveal their family life to be based on bonds of love, trust, and mutual respect. But, unlike in our own society, there is little, if any, opportunity for those emotions to reverberate beyond the immediate family. Where the “moral frontier” of the family ends, so too does trust, and the sole encounter with someone outside the family ends in a manner reminiscent of John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009). Indeed, A Quiet Place and The Road might be grouped with Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2007) as visionary depictions of worlds where the frontiers of shared morality are sharply defined. In Apocalypto, Jaguar Paw’s (Rudy Youngblood) tribe represents the limit of common humanity, and the destruction of the tribe is itself tantamount to the end of the world, with its members being murdered, enslaved, or butchered in ritual sacrifice.
As civilisation expands, so too does the circle of shared humanity, and those who would otherwise be strangers and enemies become encompassed within bonds of mutual confidence and security — in other words, they come to share a moral code. Absent such a framework, interactions outside the (more or less extended) family are fraught with danger. The risk posed by outsiders can be mitigated by living in larger social groups, such as tribes. But that does not obviate the need, felt by people in all cultures, to maintain a minimum posture of defence to try and ward off the threat of exploitation or opportunist violence. It is the existence of government, and the state, which has done more than anything else to allow humans in most parts of the world to largely set aside their private need to maintain the capacity for deterrence and revenge – costs which they delegate to the state. The psychologist Steven Pinker explains the world-historical significance of this social innovation:
People can rest assured that someone else will impose disincentives on their enemies, making it unnecessary for them to maintain a belligerent stance to prove they are not punching bags. […] Adjudication by an armed authority appears to be the most effective general violence-reduction technique ever invented.The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002)
Without recourse to any outside authority to defend them, the Abbotts must invest their time and other resources into turning their own home into a defensive compound, protected by multiple security systems. The image of a white rural family turning their farm into a “virtual fortress” prompted criticism of the film’s “regressive politics”. But it is unclear what more agreeable steps they might have taken to keep themselves alive.
In any event, whatever measures the Abbotts can take are scarcely adequate, and their failure ultimately inevitable. This leads to one of the film’s most striking scenes, when Evelyn must give birth in a bathtub, silently and alone, while a monster stalks her inside the house. In the wild, prey animals must take various measures to try and avoid detection from predators while in this uniquely vulnerable state. The realities of human biology — notably our large brains and proportionately big heads — render Evelyn’s task, which is already physically impossible, the stuff of nightmares. Absent the medical support and general rubric of safety largely taken for granted in modern society, Evelyn must exercise unimaginable bravery.
The uniquely female ordeal which Evelyn undergoes is, fortunately, something that relatively few people will have to imagine themselves or a loved one undergoing today. But, as the philosopher Adam Smith observed, the kind of self-command she exhibits was more commonly expected at other times in history. Smith explained the paramount importance of self-command when intense suffering was routine, and death from sheer want was a genuine possibility. Then, the suffering of any individual was unlikely to excite special sympathy from others undergoing similar trials. Where absolute scarcity meant people lacked the means of charity, self-control and “Spartan discipline” became primary virtues. The evidence available to Smith in the middle of the eighteenth century led him to compare Native Americans with people in his own society: “Their magnanimity and self-command, in this respect, are almost beyond the conception of Europeans.”
Speech remains our best tool for identifying, understanding, and sharing information about the threats we face, as individuals and as a society. Those seeking the arbitrary imposition of their goals or values upon others will always be keen to deprive everyone else of the freedom to advance contrary ideas.
During our present moment of cultural disorientation, it’s difficult to avoid the allegorical implications of A Quiet Place’s unswerving focus on communication in dangerous times. Krasinski has noted the influence of Jaws (1975), and the futility of trying to retreat from the dangers of the world:
That character was scared to be a cop in New York, so he ran away from his fears to an island. The one thing he never wanted was a scary situation, and it’s now surrounding him.John Krasinski, interview with ‘Playboy’, 16 March 2018.
Hamlet observed that until we shuffle off this mortal coil there is no escape from “The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks / That Flesh is heir to”. Until then, speech remains our best tool for identifying, understanding, and sharing information about the threats we face, as individuals and as a society. Those seeking the arbitrary imposition of their goals or values upon others will always be keen to deprive everyone else of the freedom to advance contrary ideas. In The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Thomas Sowell argues that free speech is therefore not a “special interest” designed to protect the small number of professional journalists. It protects society at large, because human freedom is imperilled when those with power can control what journalists, or other people, are allowed to say:
Such a power would be a blank check for violating all the other rights guaranteed by the Constitution to the population at large, for those violations could all be covered up if the press were controlled by politicians. In short, the principal beneficiaries of the right of freedom of the press are people who are not part of the press.The Quest for Cosmic Justice (1999).
As A Quiet Place approaches its climax, Lee breaks the taboo against noise. To distract the creature threatening his children, he screams at the top of his lungs. This ends the self-censorship which has prevailed throughout the story and draws the attention of a demonic and apparently insatiable creature, without conscience or remorse, at whose hands his destruction is assured. His scream is that of an anguished parent who has lost a child. But it is also a powerfully symbolic act, eliciting the fate of those who, in societies across the ages, have found themselves at the mercy of tyrants, mobs, and witch-hunts. It might also be interpreted as a form of martyrdom. (Here is a review suggesting a Christian interpretation of the film’s religious themes.) Lee’s ending, tragic though it is, is pregnant with meaning: a heroic apotheosis which sees him sacrifice his own life for the sake of his children.
Unburdened by the pseudo-intellectual anxieties of critical theory, A Quiet Place is refreshingly free from the craven and hollow political evangelism which characterises recent emanations from neoliberal Hollywood.
Running only ninety minutes, A Quiet Place is markedly shorter than most films of its stature, yet it packs within its taut timeframe more drama and human insight than many films twice its length. Its central motif mandates a singular emphasis on aesthetics that evokes the days of silent cinema. Meanwhile, its excellent cinematography explodes the expectations of its ostensible genre (horror). Far from being a mere patina on the film’s plot and wider themes, the visual harmony which Krasinski orchestrates across its bucolic staging (and which is so violently interrupted at pivotal moments) serves a higher purpose.
As with our capacity for language and religious belief, the human aptitude for aesthetic judgement helps distinguish us from other members of the animal kingdom. While the blind creatures terrorising the Abbott family presumably have no sense of aesthetics, the Abbotts invest precious time and energy keeping themselves and their home in good order. Here, they display a trait described by the late Sir Roger Scruton: “Looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters — not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meaning and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.” After all, what practical good does it serve to maintain a clean and tidy home, and to remain well-groomed, a year after the end of the world? While not being smeared with dirt and grime could be interpreted as a sop to audience expectations, the family’s fastidiousness becomes plot-relevant, when Evelyn’s labours to wash the family’s clothes precipitate the events leading to the denouement. “Cleanliness is Next to Godliness”, and Lee and Evelyn are clearly concerned that their children inherit not just utilitarian knowledge, but aesthetic and moral ideals.
Scruton also observed that great architecture can be enhanced in a modest and sympathetic setting, just as it can be overshadowed or degraded in one that is visually boisterous. In a similar way, the minimalist setting of A Quiet Place perfectly frames its two lead actors. Disarmingly handsome, Krasinski’s obvious sensitivity adds smouldering depths to his naturally engaging persona. Already embraced by the public following his role as everyman hero Jim Halpert in American TV sitcom The Office (2005-2013), here Krasinski takes an important step forward in his transformation into a cinematic icon for the modern age.
As for Blunt, twice she playfully distorts Evelyn’s features to try and downplay her looks. One might imagine that the disadvantages of the setting, and advanced pregnancy, would detract from the surpassing beauty with which Blunt graced The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and even rambunctious offerings like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Sicario (2015). But far from it. Here, Blunt transcends typical standards of cinematic allure, investing Evelyn with a numinous aura of moral and spiritual courage such that she comes to epitomize the sanctity of motherhood. In the Western tradition, the most prominent example of this archetype is the image of the Madonna. Evelyn herself gives birth in the humblest and loneliest of circumstances, and at the end of the film her baby boy is coddled in a wooden box – part manger, part living coffin. But her integrated approach to motherhood balances caring and protecting with the imparting of wisdom and preparation for life beyond the nest; while the film’s closing image, which sees Evelyn pumping a shotgun, is defiant, not sentimental. Blunt’s Evelyn elevates film and audience alike: the hallmark of a performance of the highest distinction.
Unburdened by the pseudo-intellectual anxieties of critical theory, A Quiet Place is also refreshingly free from the craven and hollow political evangelism which characterises recent emanations from neoliberal Hollywood. Succeeding both as a visionary depiction of subjects with universal resonance, and as functional dramatic entertainment, its humble authenticity speaks to the finest traditions of American cinema — traditions still cherished by the film-loving public, notwithstanding decades of deconstruction by Western filmmakers and critics. It stands as an understated and unexpected paean to timeless values of love, courage, and family, realised with beauty and grace. And in the end, it shows us that there is always hope.