Krasinski’s ‘A Quiet Place’ offers subtle scares

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

“A Quiet Place” is not a particularly ambitious film. Directed by novice director John Krasinski (“The Office”), the film neither attempts to redefine the horror genre nor offers viewers some profound social commentary. Rather, “A Quiet Place” seeks to carve a niche out for itself within the confines of the horror genre, and to that end, “A Quiet Place” has been remarkably successful.

Set in a dystopic future, the film follows the Abbott family as they try to survive in a world overrun by extraterrestrial predators. Though they are blind, the seemingly invulnerable creatures have extremely sensitive hearing, capable of tracking down and consuming any human who makes a sound louder than a cough within minutes.

Tactfully, Krasinski does little to explain the creatures or how this silent dystopia came to be, dropping viewers into the Abbott family’s story on what is declared to be Day 89 of the apocalypse.

Krasinski plays Lee Abbott, the even-tempered patriarch of the family, and his wife Emily Blunt (“Sicario”) plays on-screen wife Evelyn. The Abbott children are two sons and a deaf daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds, “Wonderstruck”).

When viewers first meet the Abbotts, they are rummaging through an abandoned convenience store, tiptoeing barefoot through the deserted aisles, past rows of potato chip packets that would be too loud to open in this world. The family communicates in sign language and the only sounds heard are the tense breaths and the soft pitter-patter of bare feet on linoleum.

Krasinski carefully establishes the oppressive pressure of silence, sometimes even using sub-bass tones to keep audience members on edge. When the sound of the youngest Abbott’s toy rocket ship cracks through the tenuous hush, the galloping, ungainly creatures are summoned, immediately and violently establishing the dire stakes the Abbotts are facing.

A year later, the story picks up at a secluded and heavily modified farm stronghold that the remaining Abbotts now call home. Evelyn is almost at term with their fourth child. The children find themselves stifled and perpetually fearful: their youths are colored by precaution. When Evelyn’s water breaks prematurely, the Abbotts must defend themselves again.

Krasinski does not rely on jump scares as much as he ratchets tension with dramatic irony. In a world where simply being human — being fallible, expressive, clumsy — can spell one’s doom, viewers are forced to reconsider the dangers inherent the Abbotts’s world. Timers, nails, lamps are sources of trepidation, and Krasinski astutely clues viewers in to the thorns that the Abbotts will ensnare themselves in later. So, the terror that afflicts audiences stems not from the unexpected but from the Abbotts’s slow march towards the inevitable.

Much of the discomfort that Krasinski is able to elicit comes from his strong use of visual storytelling, avoiding much of soundtrack to visually engage viewers in this silent world. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen captures the Abbotts’s lives in soft tones with gentle shadows caressing each character’s form, lending a sense of intimacy and frailty to their interactions.

Yet it often feels as if Krasinski, as a first-time director, is too afraid to fully commit to his stylistic conceit. For all of the visual storytelling, there are also exposition dumps that clumsily attempt to explain the nature of the creatures, robbing them of their intimidating mystery. The more that is revealed about the creatures, the less plausible and engaging the world becomes.

As the climactic horror set-pieces unfold, characters’ actions begin to feel a little contrived. They begin to behave less reasonably, as if Krasinski is moving them into place simply to maximize the trauma inflicted on characters and viewers.

In addition, the soundtrack composed by Marco Beltrami often feels out of place, adding generic horror sound bytes to jump scares and tense scenes. These audio elements serve to undercut much of the innovative horror tactics that Krasinski employs elsewhere in the film.

Despite these flaws, the cast are remarkably expressive, ensuring that the lack of sound does not hinder the audience’s emotional engagement with the plot. Much of the horror works so well because Krasinski and Blunt are able to draw viewers into their characters’ lives to understand the duress that weighs upon them.

Ultimately, “A Quiet Place” is neither a particularly thought-provoking movie nor a particularly logical one. The narrative is often uneven and the resolution feels a little pat. Nonetheless, Krasinski’s debut is surprisingly effective at spiking its viewers’ heart rates. It seems that “A Quiet Place” is happy to temper its ambitions there. “A Quiet Place” is playing at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema and Regal Atlantic Station.