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Many describe the success of Krasinski’s new film, A Quiet Place, as a pivotal moment in cinema history, particularly in the genre of thriller. The movie features a family who lives a quiet life on a farm – quite literally so. The family has to live their lives without making a sound in fear of strange and hungry creatures that hunt any and all things that would dare make a sound. Things soon take a turn for the worse, and the family finds themselves in a life and death struggle with the creatures who have invaded their home. As the title suggests, the movie is mostly silent and barely has any dialogue, so that cinematography and acting do much of the work required to progress the plot. The movie had overwhelmingly positive reviews and praised as a thriller for the books. As unique as it is, however, it is not a work in isolation. It borrows certain themes, ideas, and arguably some scenes from other media, such as the 1851 novel The Swiss Family Robinson, of all things.
A Quiet Place: A Modern Take on the Swiss Family, Post-Apocalypse
It might seem like a long shot at first – probably because the movie and the novel could not be further in terms of genre and era – but closer inspection will reveal some interesting overlaps between the two. First, both are stories about a family that struggles to fend for themselves without the help of civilisation; one is stuck on a deserted island, while the other lives on a deserted homestead. Next, both families have six members, only that two of them die in the movie, and the other one is born during its events. Both stories also take on pedagogical overtones, primarily depicted through adults teaching the children the rules of survival, decency and the importance of family and cooperation.
As plot points go, some striking parallels could also be drawn between both works. For example, Ernest, the second child in the Robinson family, shares the same brilliance and “indolence” of the second son of the Abbots, Marcus. Next, despite the shipwreck they endured, the Robinsons hardly lacked for anything, having that their island was rich in resources and they managed to secure some survival supplies like firearms, livestock and hammocks. Likewise, the Abbots do not want for anything, granted they live in the middle of the cornfields, fish for food, have heaps of canned food in store, and have electricity running through the house. And, fun fact, both mothers somehow injure themselves on a flight of stairs over the course of their respective stories.
Fig. 1: A Family Procession (by Johann David Wyss) depicting the Robinson Family (Left) and the Abbot Family on their way out of Little Falls (Right).
But it is the emphasis on the role of parents as teachers that pretty much solidifies the connection between both works. As a novel, The Swiss Family Robinson was overtly didactic in its approach, the role of teacher and patriarch falling on none other than the father, William Robinson. William teaches all four of his sons how to be good explorers and travellers in their foreign, untamed environment. But more importantly, he teaches them how to be good, faithful Christians in spite of the absence of a standing church and clergy. Elisabeth, William’s wife, takes on the domestic roles for the family and is mostly in charge of keeping house and tending to the crops and livestock. By the end of the book, their children become the founders of a new European colony.
Here, the movie parallels the novel to a tee. Much like the Robinson family, the Abbot family has a designated patriarch in Lee Abbot. Lee takes on the role of protector and provider for the family, devising clever ways to secure and cook food without attracting unwanted attention from the monsters. He also teaches Marcus how to provide for the family using those methods, as well as how to keep them safe. And like Elisabeth, Evelyn Abbot takes care of the family’s domestic duties, tasks that she actively tries to pass on to their daughter, Regan. But this is not to say that the same motivations drive the Abbots and the Robinsons. William and Elisabeth instruct their children with the hope that someday they would either make it back to civilised society or be such a society of their own. The Abbots, on the other hand, take on and pass on such traditional parental roles with no other goal than to keep their children alive for as long as possible while the threat of the monsters remained. One could argue that the Abbot parents took on such roles simply for the sake of preserving them.
Fig. 2: Returning Thanks (by Johann David Wyss) depicting the Robinson Family in prayer (Left); the Abbot Family in prayer (Right)
From a thematic standpoint, however, the fact that the Abbots approximate the familial structure of the Robinsons is no accident, and neither is the fact that they live in a homestead. It is a deliberate attempt to mirror the traditional American Christian values and family structure prior to progressive history, as reflected in The Swiss Family Robinson. Like the Robinsons, the Abbots pray together, delineate activities according to gender, and devote time and energy toward establishing a civilisation. However, the presence of the monster and the post-apocalyptic plot and setting complicate what would have been the typical progression of the story. Whereas in the novel, the parents gain more confidence as they watch their children grow and learn wisdom, the parents in A Quiet Place are fraught with constant fear over the safety of their children. Where the parents are supposed to make all the sacrifices for their children, the children in the movie are forced into situations that require them to take massive risks.
Ultimately, what makes the film a “modern” take is the conclusions that it draws from the plot, and how far those conclusions differ from the traditional family structure found in The Swiss Family Robinson. In the latter, one of the central themes is the absolute inability of children to civilise or fend for themselves without the aid of their parents. And it is here that A Quiet Place
departs: in a way, the movie “punishes” Lee for not giving her daughter enough credit – not until his final moments anyway – while it charges Regan with the ultimate weapon against the strange creatures. Further, it is Marcus that lights the fireworks and creates the distraction that saves his mother’s life. With this, the film gives the children active, rather than passive, roles and confers upon them an equally substantial role in their family’s survival. It is modern in that sense because it does not reinforce the traditional roles of parent and child as carer and cared respectively. Rather, children are seen as co-equal contributors to the family’s wellbeing.
Horror in the Heartland: Production Design in A Quiet Place
Despite its modern overtones, the nuclear family still takes centre stage in the film. The bonds of this traditional family may not be well established by dialogue, but it permeates every element of the film – from the pictures hanging on the walls to the home-cooked meals. And where it counts the most, it seems that the essential elements of familial love and cooperation, are proven to be as intact in the movie as in the novel. But it is also precisely because of this that the movie becomes so horrifying to watch. Unlike in other horror or post-apocalyptic films like Jaws or I Am Legend, the casts of which are composed of people living isolated lives, the main characters are people that every viewer has a natural connection to: a mother, a father, a sister, a brother. A Quiet Place puts members of the family in a life or death ordeal which sets the tone for the entire movie. As Di Placido (2018) puts it “A lone gunslinger exploring the decaying ruins of a once-great civilization is a bit of an escapist fantasy, as romantic as it is nightmarish. But add a pregnant wife and young children into the mix, and the romance instantly evaporates, leaving only the nightmare.”
Fig. 3: Lee and Marcus Abbot treading on sanded paths.
But what makes A Quiet Place exceptional is how it brings all of those elements to life with barely any dialogue. What is not verbalised is visualised; the screen opens up to a whole new world of visual story-telling. Since the characters cannot speak, their actions speak for them. Throughout the movie, silence is given a physical manifestation that allows the viewer to see it on-screen literally. The barefoot characters expertly treading on sanded paths and avoiding dried leaves; the family using leaves as plates to avoid the typical clinking and clanging; the couple dancing away on earphones – these visual moments give form to silence, and as such show it for the very real presence that it is on the characters’ lives. But that is not all there is to it. Their actions are both defined and necessarily limited by their on-screen environments, so that production design becomes all the more crucial in developing the story and building the tension. One of its biggest impacts, in fact, is through the set, particularly in its appearance and the emotional response it evokes. The challenge was to set the mood in keeping with the story’s direction, that is, to establish the predicates of the “Place” in A Quiet Place.
Fig. 4: Grant Wood’s farm paintings side-by-side, Farm View (Left) and Fertility (Right)
The choice of the farm scenery (shot in a few rural towns of New York) coincides with the notion of the quiet life as embodied in the American pastoral idyll of the heartland: “The US family farm has long served as the keystone of the American pastoral idyll, symbol of heartland, image of productivity and abundance – both an egalitarian world of yeoman farmers and a family setting at its most pure and wholesome” (Wilkerson, 2017, p. 122). It is no accident, then, that the structures and scenery in the movie mirror those that can be found in Grant Wood’s farm paintings (see Fig. 3); it establishes the family in the heartland in keeping with the American pastoral idyll – which is itself a “corruption” of the British pastoral idyll, as embodied in the Robinson family. But true to its modern, post-apocalyptic inclinations, the film transforms the space by stripping the homestead of its idealisation, so that even if the Abbots finally found a quiet place to live, it is as far as they’ll get from the idyllic quiet life of the American heartland. In a way, the modern stance of the film renders the old American ideals of simplicity and modesty obsolete, and the family’s attempt to live by them an ultimately meaningless gesture.
Fig. 5: An establishing shot of the Abbot family’s homestead.
Seeing Silence: Sound Design and Cinematography
In a film where silence and music play such important roles, sound design and cinematography are nearly impossible to separate. That’s because the visual nature of sound in the film makes it impossible to divorce silence and music from the acting and the setting. The entire premise of the film lies in the persistence of silence and its interplay with every element of the movie, so much that the tenor and tension of the film change whenever that silence is broken. This is nowhere more evident than in every appearance of the creature, which pops out whenever noise is made, thereby allowing the viewer to have a tangible representation of noise, and an equally tangible reason why it needs to be avoided at all costs. This association between noise and monster is strengthened by the apparent safety of the characters for as long as they stay silent; if noise equals monster, then silence is an ally.
It is here that the movie distinguishes itself further as a horror/thriller, by reversing the formula for sound design in most horror flicks. Noting the distinct character of music in the horror genre, Whittington (2014, p. 183) writes “Silence in film has never been silent. It is filled with both noise and meaning – most readily it symbolizes death… When the wind stops or the footfalls cease, death is near. In A Quiet Place, the opposite is true: silence symbolises safety and is a tangible, sometimes visible, sanctuary from the horrors of the film’s broken world. Rather, it is the presence of noise – i.e. sound without intent or meaning – that brings the characters close to death, which harkens back to the modern, post-apocalyptic meaninglessness that pervades the characters’ lives. One way in which the movie employs this is during a key scene where Evelyn steps on the nail: the moment that she drops a framed picture of her family is the moment that begins the distress that ultimately “breaks” her family.
Fig. 6: Evelyn drops the frame and begins the rising action of the movie.
Obviously, this means the on-screen terror associated with the monsters will not work if they were on-screen all the time. This convention of leaving the monsters hidden until key moments of tension is inherited from Spielberg’s Jaws, and it has become a staple for many horror movies since. But while A Quiet Place
does use this formula, it does not do so in a cut-and-dry manner: whereas Jaws
makes heavy use of the score to “announce” the impending threat, A Quiet Place makes the role of the score secondary, as tension only rises when an initial noise is made. As such, all the score does is amplify the tension that has already arisen from the combinations of action and setting during particular scenes. And this is of key importance: despite its premise and title, the movie is filled with low-key, ASMR-like rustling and tapping that come with the normal, quiet activities of the family. Here, sound design and cinematography work together to create scenes that are both significant to the action and to the ear, creating an atmosphere where noise stands out and sets the viewer on edge.
Fig. 7: Lee Abbot rushes to save his son, Evelyn aghast.
It is arguably the first appearance of the monster that sets the tone of the entire movie. When the scene reached its climax, the viewer comes to grips with the seriousness of the threat, the reality of loss, and the fact that these monsters will not even spare a child if it came down to it. Curiously, not a bit of dialogue was spoken to achieve that effect; all of it was carried out through the strength of the character’s reactions. One of the scenes that particularly stand out is shown in Fig. 6, when their youngest son, Beau, fails to resist the temptation of turning his new toy on. The movement here suggests an extremely high level of tension, which, again, is complicated by the fact that none of them can actually say a peep. As such, tension is suggested through other means: through the characters’ faces, their body language, and their movement. In succeeding shots, Lee’s tense face and rapid movement, Regan and Marcus’ shock, and Evelyn’s hands over her mouth do most of the work here in that regard. Fig. 8:
Munch’s The Scream.
This particular scene is reminiscent of another ‘silent scream’ found in classic portraiture. Munch’s The Scream (Fig. 7) has always been associated with horror films, and it is no surprise why given the actual horror its subject exhibits. Its mouth agape, hands covering its ears from the absolute terror of the silent scream of nature. In his own words,
“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature” (McPhillips, 2014, p. 197).
One could immediately notice the similarities between this and the scene in question: people walking on a narrow passage on a high place, a setting sun, and terror of the highest order. But the movie makes another reversal here: instead of nature issuing a terrifying scream toward unperceiving ears, it is the characters who are screaming inwardly toward a world where silence is both sacred and necessary. In that regard, Evelyn and Regan’s hands over their mouths and Munch’s subject’s hands over its ears are doing the same thing: they are trying to ward off the potential horrors that the ‘scream’ might bring them. In both cases, silence is golden, and the inevitable result.
A Quiet Place is a phenomenal work that breaks conventions in horror storytelling. But while unique, it is not a work in isolation, and takes influences from other media. Good examples of its influences include The Swiss Family Robinson, Grant Wood’s farm paintings, and Munch’s famous The Scream – an odd mix for sure, but strengthens the unique atmosphere and plot of the story. The movie’s greatest strength is its ability to make sound visible and facilitate for subconscious associations between sound and image. As such, every sound bite in the movie carries a visual aspect, and every visual element can elicit an auditory response.
Di Placido, D. (2018) ‘‘A Quiet Place’ Is the Ultimate Horror Film for Parents.’ Forbes, 10 April 2018. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2018/04/10/a-quiet-place-is-the-ultimate-horror-film-for-parents/#5eb070a45d42
McPhillips, S. (2014) Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers. Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.
Whittington, W. (2014) ‘Horror Sound Design.’ In: Benshoff, H.M. (ed.) A Companion to the Horror Film. Oxford: John Wiley and Sons.
Wilkerson, A. (2017) ‘Not Your Father’s Family Farm.’ In: Goldthwaite, M.A. Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.
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