I can't recall the last time I found myself caring as intently for the characters in a horror picture as I did for the family in "A Quiet Place," the sensationally gripping and emotional new alien-invasion thriller from the actor and writer-director John Krasinski. The sheer levels of sympathetic adrenaline he summons here — of pure, relentless, moment-to-moment anxiety — are nothing short of remarkable, especially since the terrors that have befallen this family are at once so ludicrous, so vague and so inexplicable.
The short version: A race of lethally fast and sharp-jawed creatures have swarmed the planet's surface, wiping out much of the human population. We never learn where they came from, how they arrived or why any of this is happening. All we know is what Lee and Evelyn Abbott (played by real-life spouses Krasinski and Emily Blunt) and their children know: The creatures are blind, but they possess extraordinary powers of hearing. Any sound above a tap or a whisper — say, a glass breaking, or even a few words being spoken aloud — will bring death to the Abbotts' door within seconds.
Krasinski has clearly absorbed a lesson in conceptual economy from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," and like a "Jaws"-era Steven Spielberg, he takes his time revealing the monsters in all their sharp-fanged, big-eared hideousness. (If you've ever wondered what would happen if H.R. Giger's Alien mated with Dumbo, wonder no further.) We do get a few blips of back story in the newspaper clippings lining the walls of the Abbotts' rural farmhouse: worldwide destruction, untold fatalities, the astonishing realization that the monsters hunt by sound.
But the details in the nearly dialogue-free script, which Krasinski wrote with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, are left bare-bones by design. What makes "A Quiet Place" work like gangbusters isn't some elaborate mythology. It's the way the story immerses us, for 95 urgently paced minutes, in the minutiae of everyday survival. This is walking-on-eggshells cinema of a very high order; it's about people clinging silently to process, and logic, in the face of a literally unspeakable tragedy.
For this reason, it's also the kind of movie that will have many gleefully picking apart its own lapses in logic, the holes in an otherwise airtight premise. Feel free to do so; it's all part of the fun. Viewers inclined to break the tension with nervous laughter may well wonder how the Abbotts have managed to survive the everyday acts of sneezing, snoring or, God forbid, passing gas. (A friend at the screening offered up the alternate title "Silent But Deadly.")
Still others might scoff in disbelief when it's revealed early on that Evelyn is pregnant; surely she and Lee would have known better than to risk bringing a screaming newborn into this God-forsaken world. But one of the movie's sobering lessons is that in desperate times, which endanger not just a way of life but the very meaning of life, excessive caution has a way of going hand-in-hand with extreme risk. Evelyn and Lee turn out to have their own painful reasons for wanting another child, and they have made some startling arrangements for when the baby arrives. Life without sound, it turns out, requires an awful lot of pre-planning.
Lee and Evelyn also have two young children who are already much smarter and more resilient than they should have to be. Marcus (Noah Jupe) is sensitive and easily frightened; there's one heartbreaking moment when he tries to apologize for a simple mistake, and we register the psychological toll of an existence where kids must constrain their emotions at any cost.
Marcus' older sister, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), is made of sterner stuff: She's terrifically smart, brave and self-possessed. She is also deaf, which might seem to put her at a singular disadvantage where the monsters are concerned, an assumption that the filmmakers cleverly and cannily subvert at every turn. Indeed, the fact that Regan and her family are all adept at sign language might partly account for how long they've managed to survive in silence.
Still, to Regan's annoyance, her disability also brings out Lee's most protective instincts, including his vain but tireless efforts to build her a workable hearing aid. The tense relationship between father and daughter, marbled with a curious mix of tenderness, guilt and misunderstanding, turns out to be the key dynamic in a horror movie predicated almost entirely on the difficulty of effective communication.
Simmonds, a deaf actress, is as commanding here as she was in her astonishing breakthrough turn last year in Todd Haynes' "Wonderstruck." And Krasinski, shaking off every last goofy vestige of Jim from "The Office," fully embraces the role of a sweaty, bearded survivalist whose love for his children asserts itself with devastating ferocity. He is more than matched by Blunt, whose performance is a piercing, from-the-gut acknowledgment that there are few things as powerfully protective, or so worthy of protection, as a mother's love.
Krasinski previously directed two little-seen features, the David Foster Wallace adaptation "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" and the quirky family dramedy "The Hollars," neither of which suggested he might have the makings of a first-rate horror filmmaker or an old-school Hollywood craftsman. ("A Quiet Place" was shot, with striking crispness and vitality, on 35-millimeter film by the cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen.)
From the very first scene, in which we meet the Abbotts searching an abandoned store for supplies, the film is recognizably the product of a keenly observant sensibility. The camera keeps feeding us quick, telling details: We see Lee checking the fishing cages at a nearby river that keeps food on the table, and also pouring sand trails outside the house so as to muffle the family's footsteps. We note the lights strung over the Abbotts' yard, which switch to bright red whenever danger is afoot — which it is, quite often. If "A Quiet Place" is an unusually poised and patient example of its genre, it's also a reminder that patience, often associated with slowness, can in fact be extraordinarily propulsive.
The Spielberg influence runs deep: The emotional arcs have been cunningly orchestrated for both maximum tension and cathartic payoff. The building of tension in cramped quarters, whether in a dank basement or a grain silo, is masterful. And in a movie where auditory perception is paramount, Krasinski is not too austere a filmmaker to introduce a stirring musical score (composed by Marco Beltrami), which only occasionally overwhelms the intricacy of Brandon Jones' sound design.
The pleasures of this story are the pleasures of watching people think, quickly but methodically, through a situation. To the very end, where a different picture might have devolved into a routine bloodbath, the movie clings to its intelligence like a protective amulet; it keeps the viewer in a state of heightened alertness throughout.
In the first half, the characters teach us the rules of survival; in the second, we learn new ones alongside them, and the sense of cumulative, wordless revelation is thrilling. I've seen "A Quiet Place" twice, and it spoils nothing to note that the film closes, crucially, with not just an image but a sound — one that was met immediately, both times I heard it, with a burst of grateful, relieved applause.
'A Quiet Place'
Rating: PG-13, for terror and some bloody images
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In wide release