There have been a lot of disability-driven horror movies over the years; stories that focus on the removal of a certain sense or physical power to create a heightened sense of dread or peril. Our protagonist cannot see, cannot walk, cannot move at all, cannot speak, cannot possibly survive the evils to come in a way that most people in the audience might imagine. In many ways, it’s kind of a cheap way around horror writing, and sometimes even crosses the line into outright insensitivity. But sometimes, this approach delivers a real gem that in exploring the limitations of one of its characters with dignity and respect, and also imposes a limitation on its own storytelling range as well. And we get that in A Quiet Place, which isn’t a silent film but is darn near close to one, and one that shows how little we really need sudden noise to want to huddle in muffled terror.
The year is 2020, and in a very short period of time, most human and animal life has been wiped off the face of the map by an alien invasion of blind creatures with impervious armored skin and ultra-sensitive hearing. The aliens prowl around everywhere, instantly turning on anything that makes even the slightest sound. Among the very few survivors left is the Abbott family—Evelyn, Lee Regan, Marcus and Beau—who seem to have more easily adapted to their situation because Regan is congenitally deaf, and the entire family has figured out how to live in silence, and already knows how to communicate without talking. But when the margin for survival is this narrow, something is bound to go wrong. Their youngest, Beau, doesn’t seem to understand the no-sound rule. Evelyn is pregnant in a world where a crying baby is a death sentence. And Regan and Lee’s heightened father-teen daughter tension is the kind of rift that could spell the doom of them all. On a single fateful night, everything the Abbotts have learned in their time after the invasion will be put to the test—especially their bonds as a family.
There is something almost hypnotic about this movie, as we spend about 90% of it without dialogue of any kind, or even without much sound at all. We are immersed from the beginning in the deep rituals the Abbotts have invented to live their life without making any kind of noise. And while there are very few openly scary moments for much of this movie, there is a sense of deep and terrifying dread throughout as we realize that it takes just the tiniest of mistakes to sign the entire family’s death warrant. Rarely in horror movies do we see a situation where everybody is so equally in peril, but here, we find ourselves holding our own breath for fear of giving away the Abbotts’ position. For what could have been a gimmick, the silence of A Quiet Place is deeply effective.
But there is also the matter of the Abbotts themselves. We see a lot of families in horror who are forced to survive together, but they often don’t feel particularly authentic. The Abbotts do, perhaps bound by the unique skills they have had to develop to raise Regan, and again perhaps bound by their shared experiences—both uplifting and tragic. The end result is there are no loose characters who we easily decide are acceptable losses. We don’t want any of these characters to go, and the likelihood that if we lose one, we lose all only heightens our sense of peril. Rarely do we want everybody to survive a horror movie so much, but we want that for the Abbotts, because the Abbotts capture the humble dignity of a family that is hellbent on survival, yes, but they will not do it at the cost of hurting their love for each other.
That love is what the real stakes are here, and we see it especially with Lee and Evelyn, who not only must hold the family together as the parents, but their dire circumstances are like every parent’s worst nightmare turned up to 11. They know only too well what it means to lose one of their children, and yet, they are willing to bring another one into this environment. Whether one sees that as reckless or optimistic depends on one’s point of view, probably. But we see how earnestly the Abbotts strive to keep their kids safe, and how well they understand the stakes at play here, that even in moments of supposed safety, we know that the gnawing terror of having to watch their children die—or worse, being responsible for their deaths—is never far from their minds.
There are a lot of great moments in this, but few compare to the moment of truth when Evelyn finally goes into labor, and because nothing can go easily in a horror movie, she must do so while one of the alien monsters is in the house, and she is already wounded. Throughout the scene, we are pretty sure she will be able to deliver her baby without making a sound, because we have seen just how tough and resourceful Evelyn has been throughout the movie so far. But in the back of our minds, there is the horrible question: what happens when the baby cries? And more importantly, what will Evelyn have to do to keep her newborn child quiet?
When we finally see how that scene turns out, with its awful moments of tension finally resolved, we realize that it isn’t an act of foolishness or selfishness to raise a family under monstrous conditions. It’s heroic. Because it always starts with love. And no matter how fearsome the monsters, no matter how grim the chances, no matter how high the cost, love wins. Love always wins.