Rating: 4 stars
A creeping, increasingly queasy sense of dread pervades “A Quiet Place,” John Krasinski’s nervy thriller that marks a notable addition to the recent spate of smart, timely genre pictures. Like “Get Out,” which was on its way to becoming a pop culture juggernaut around this time last year, “A Quiet Place” deploys the most classic conventions of similar films that have gone before it, including jump scares, creepy-looking creatures, frightening camera angles and a terrifying sound design.
In this case, though, even the most familiar gestures look — and, more pointedly, sound — brand new. “A Quiet Place” opens in a leafy small town in Upstate New York on Day 89 of a mysterious invasion by voracious otherworldly beings. Unable to see but endowed with supernatural hearing, these clicking, hissing aliens hide out for most of the day, quickly swooping in to dispatch their victims only when attracted by a loud noise.
Bearing that in mind, the Abbotts — played by Krasinski and Emily Blunt, who are married in real life — lead a mostly silent life, communicating with their three children in sign language, tiptoeing around their Victorian farmhouse, creating trails of sand on which to walk barefoot to and from town, and playing the odd game of Monopoly with felt-coated pips. Like a half-mad survivalist, Krasiniski’s paterfamilias labors in the basement workshop, trying to summon help with his shortwave radio and inventing a hearing aid for his daughter, who is deaf. As the personification of maternal nurturing and strength, Blunt’s character does her best to maintain a safe and welcoming home, even while staying attuned to the threats that lurk just a stray whisper away.
Like the best movies, “A Quiet Place” teaches the audience how to watch it within the first 10 minutes, during which characters are introduced, the stage is set, and the stakes are established and heightened in a sequence that plays out entirely without words. But not without sound: The movie’s ingenious sound design includes the gentle cadences of nature at its most quietly reassuring. But when the point of view changes to the Abbotts’ adolescent daughter — played in an exceptionally sensitive performance by the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds — ambient noise is completely absent.
The upshot is that Simmonds’s character can’t hear what she can’t hear; she isn’t able to discern the noises that might bring sure death to the people she loves the most. Her little brother, played in a similarly accomplished turn by Noah Jupe, intuiting a strain between his sister and her father, reluctantly allows himself to be tutored in the hunting and gathering that the family depends on to live.
At an efficient hour and a half, “A Quiet Place” exemplifies cinematic storytelling at its most simple and inventive, using the pure grammar of sound and image to create a credible atmosphere of lived-in domesticity and looming terror. Krasinski, working from a script he co-wrote with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, creates a rich, imaginative world in which neighbors communicate by firelight and an impromptu dance with a shared pair of ear buds playing Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” possesses the sensory relief of a cool, clear spring in a desert. (Krasinski has assembled an excellent production team to help craft “A Quiet Place’s” homespun universe, including production designer Jeffrey Beecroft and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who together create an unlikely mood of warmth and coziness within the encroaching tension.)
The action ratchets up considerably in the final 45 minutes, when the monsters that Krasinski has wisely framed in brief, allusive blurs of movement come into more frightening focus. He stages some unforgettable set pieces here, including a moment of peril in a silo that gives new meaning to children of the corn, and Blunt’s character evading a giant auris dentata with spiderlike legs while her husband is occupied elsewhere.
There are even more details that make that sequence particularly unsettling, but the best way to appreciate “A Quiet Place” is with as few preconceptions as possible. Suffice it to say that Blunt emerges as the real star of a film whose themes of female silence, resilience and grit feel uncannily of the moment — up to and including her character’s facial expression in the final shot. As a celebration of the physical expressiveness and visual storytelling of silent cinema, “A Quiet Place” speaks volumes without a word being uttered.
PG-13. At area theaters, Contains terror and some bloody images. 92 minutes.