“A Quiet Place,” an alien-beastie-in-the-cornfields thriller directed by John Krasinski, opened the South by Southwest Film Festival tonight with a weirdly silent and goofy-sinister B-movie bang. The movie tells the story of a family under siege. To survive, they have to follow one abiding law of safety: If anyone makes a sound — virtually any sound at all — then that person will be a goner. A skeletal creature with crab-like pincers and a head like a metallic melon will burst out of the woods and make mincemeat of the noise-maker. But if everyone simmers down and puts a cork in it, they’ll succeed in eluding the monsters in their midst. Life will go on (but quietly!). At times, we might be watching an “Alien” sequel in which the creature had mated with a very nasty and scolding librarian.
“A Quiet Place” is a tautly original genre-bending exercise, technically sleek and accomplished, with some vivid, scary moments, though it’s a little too in love with the stoned logic of its own premise. The film generates a free-floating dread out of the fact that almost every sound a character makes is potentially deadly. The more you look at it, though, the more you see that “A Quiet Place” is at once catchy and contrived, ingenious and arbitrary. (Why is it that a crashing waterfall can mask any telltale sound, but when the family is behind the walls of their farmhouse, even their whispers risk being heard?) Yet sometimes, getting on the clever/whatever wavelength of a horror film and just rolling with can be a part of the fun. “A Quiet Place” is that kind of movie.
It opens on Day 89 of a mysterious invasion. A picturesque main street in upstate New York has been abandoned — the eerie, bombed-out vibe is pure zombie-movie dystopia. But poking around the shadowy crannies of an empty grocery store is a family: Krasinski, the noble bearded father, and his wife, played by Emily Blunt (Krasinski and Blunt are married in real life), along with their three children. They all look normal enough, except that everyone is barefoot, and remains so throughout the film, and they communicate in deaf sign language.
All appears stable until the younger son (Cade Woodward) makes the mistake of playing with a battery-powered airplane toy. They take it away from him, but he sneaks it out of the store, and when they’re on the road back, crossing a bridge, the toy starts to make noise — at which point a spindly alien appears like a flash of lightning to rip the boy’s guts out.
When it hits us that this is going to be a movie about four people attempting to say as little as possible — call it the world’s first STFU horror film — it seems, frankly, like the conceit might be a bit of a drag. Yes, sign language is real language, but the dialogue in “A Quiet Place” is naggingly minimal; it doesn’t offer much room for character development or plot-thickening intrigue. And while not every supernatural set-up needs to be entirely explained (sometimes things are spookier if they’re not), in “A Quiet Place” even the basic rules of what’s going on, which we have to piece together by looking, periodically, over a wall of newspaper headlines, are pretty thin.
Where have the aliens come from, and how many of them are there? (Three, as it often seems, or three hundred?) Have they killed everyone in the world, or is their savagery limited to upstate New York? (At times the film’s ad line feels like it should be: “In the Hudson Valley, no one can hear you scream.”) And what about the government, the military — and, you know, advanced weaponry? More to the point: Why is it that human beings making non-human sounds will set off the aliens, but the sounds of nature don’t? How do they know a toy airplane is being held by a small child?
All of which is to say: “A Quiet Place” has the smart/dumb, original/derivative, logic/anti-logic quality of a mid-period M. Night Shyamalan special like “Signs” or “The Village.” The most artful section of the movie is, in its way, the most challenging: the first half, in which the characters’ attempt to remain silent becomes a kind of deadly game. Even when they’re just communicating with their eyes, the devotion the members of this family feel toward each other is palpable. Complications trickle in, like the Blunt character’s pregnancy, or the fact that the family’s daughter is deaf (she’s played by the intensely expressive deaf actress Millicent Simmonds). Her dad keeps trying, and failing, to build her an effective hearing aid, and when it explodes in feedback, that turns out to be one of the film’s quintessentially nutty yet endearing plot points: Who could have guessed the ultimate weapon against these monsters might be a Sonic Youth box set?
Krasinski, whose personality in the features he has directed (“The Hollars,” “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”) has always been a bit fuzzy, now brings himself into focus with the genre brinksmanship of “A Quiet Place.” He stages highly suspenseful scenes, like one involving Emily Blunt and a nail sticking out of the basement stairs, and another in a grain elevator, all of which should help position the film as a solid box-office performer. In the second half, the movie turns into a more conventional alien-attack thriller, but if anything it becomes more rousingly effective. The monsters, it turns out, can hear everything but see nothing. And though we can’t always buy what we’re seeing in “A Quiet Place,” Krasinski is a gifted enough filmmaker to paper over our objections. He directs with all his senses.