What would life be like if our silence meant our survival? The horror film (if you prefer to call it that), A Quiet Place, explores this question as it depicts post-apocalyptic family life. While this may seem irrelevant to the main plot of the film, that is, the looming threat of noise-sensitive, man-eating monsters, family life is more central to the horror of the film than it might seem. More specifically, the sounds of family life become the threat to fear aside from the monsters themselves. This is, obviously, quite troubling. Family is where we begin to develop our sense of community and belonging. It is where we learn to emotionally and socially connect with others. What happens, then, when that space is disrupted? What happens when our human inclination to connect, form community, to express an emotion becomes a matter of life or death?
In our class discussion, we talked about the ways in which the family in A Quiet Place had to adapt to the silent world around them. To travel from place to place to run errands, the family must walk on sand trails without shoes to muffle the sounds of their footsteps. They communicate with each other through sign language, but we can assume that they knew sign language prior to the apocalypse because Regan, the daughter, is deaf. During family dinners, they must eat on large leafy “plates” instead of glass plates and use their hands instead of silverware. The food options themselves must be adapted as well. Presumably, the family eats mostly fish not only because it’s easy to cook quietly but also because it’s to hunt. Fishing is known to be a “silent” style of hunting (i.e. no loud guns). That and the fact that the family catches their meals near a loud waterfall that drowns out small sounds makes fish the safest food source. Bonding with family over board games is also transformed. We briefly see the kids playing Monopoly with pieces of felt and fuzz balls instead of a metal race car or thumbtack.
The family must also keep their emotions in check. We see Regan’s anger and frustration towards her father (and herself) must be muted by her punching and screaming into her pillow. When the mother witnesses her youngest child being killed, we see her cover her mouth so she does not audibly scream.
This is obviously a lot to get used to. And the audience becomes aware of this when the youngest child is killed where his ability to be a child and play with a toy rocket is disrupted. Thus, we briefly see how childhood must be adapted as well. From that point on, the audience, like the family, becomes hypersensitive to sound and must adapt to complete and utter silence (save some background music). In our class discussion, we also talked about the ways in which the audience must adapt to the soundscape of the film in order to connect with the characters, especially when they are expressing emotions commonly associated with the horror genre. In a movie where there is little to no dialogue, one would think it difficult to understand what is going on. However, the film presents emotion in other forms, most notably through body language and facial expressions.
The film also does something that we have yet to explore in this class until now: it “foreshadows” emotion. How so? The most prominent example that we discussed in the infamous raised nail. While the mother is leaving the basement of the family home with a bag full of laundry, she struggles with the heavy bag up the stairs. As she scales the stairs, the bag snags on a slightly raised nail and pulls it up from the wood with the sharp end jutting straight out. The camera lingers on the nail, a common technique used to signal the importance of the nail to the audience. Because the audience is primed from the beginning of the film to be hypersensitive to sound, the lingering image of the nail not only makes one cringe at the thought of the pain from stepping on it but also at the thought of containing that pain. How can you keep quiet when you are walking around barefoot and you step on a nail?! Here, the audience knows exactly how the mother feels (or how she will feel). Thus, the film uses lingering scenes and other imagery in addition to body language and facial expressions to demonstrate emotions. The audience hones in on these elements because the film forces its viewers to be hypersensitive to sound and hyperaware to visuals. Naturally, establishing this sensitivity is how the film creates suspense. As we discussed, small to moderate sounds become terrifyingly loud and, as demonstrated by the nail, the prospect of a loud sound is anxiety inducing. This is not because the sounds themselves are inherently scary, but because the thing follows the loud sound (i.e. THE MONSTERS) is even scarier.
From the above, we see how this sensitivity also enables the audience to fully immerse themselves into the soundscape of the film. One major implication of this is that the film invites us to consider how we might tell stories and develop characters through emphasizing film elements other than dialogue such as sound design, music, and camera angles. While the family’s ability to connect with each other and the audience’s ability to connect with the characters is disrupted, the film presents us with ways in which these abilities can be transformed and adapted to a silent world.