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A Quiet Place

Review, Theatrical, This Week 3 Comments

On a remote farm, the Abbotts – father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and younger son Marcus (Noah Jupe) live a life of quiet solitude. And by quiet, we mean absolutely silent – they communicate by sign language, muffle all potential sources of sound, strew their paths with sand lest they tread on a twig or dry leaf, keep no livestock or pets. Why? Because the woods around their house is infested with a number of powerful, horrifically violent creatures who hunt by sound, ruthlessly and brutally slaughtering anyone who attracts their attention.

It’s an untenable status quo – even the slightest lapse in noise discipline could spell instant death for the whole family. And something will go wrong – even if Marcus, traumatised by an earlier event, doesn’t panic and slip up; even if Regan, who is deaf, accidentally makes a noise she can’t hear… Evelyn is heavily pregnant, and if keeping two older children quiet is a challenge, try giving birth and then raising a baby!

A kind of sense-inverted riff on John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, A Quiet Place takes an intriguing and original variant of the old “cosy catastrophe” premise and uses it as a scalpel to cut into a whole knotted nexus of parental anxieties. At its heart, the film is about being terrified that you haven’t prepared your children for the harsh realities of the world, that you will fail to keep them safe, either because you weren’t careful enough or they just didn’t listen, dammit. Lee and Evelyn’s logical, methodical approach to the day-to-day grind of survival is all but watertight, but can any preparations stand against a moody girl acting out, or a young boy terrified of the horrors he knows exist?

It’s all framed using a formal conceit that simply wouldn’t fly as well in any other format or medium: the almost complete absence of dialogue. So many film and TV dramas are radio plays with moving pictures – works that don’t actually require you to keep your eyes on the screen to stay on track of the narrative. Conversely, the multiplexes are dominated by spectacle designed to all but push you back in your cinema seat, eyelids peeled back by all the wonder the rendering farms of South East Asia can produce. By virtue of its own carefully selected formal constraints A Quiet Place demands close attention, once again placing visual information in a place of primacy, even as it builds a subtle soundscape to augment that info and raise your arm hairs. It’s an arresting film, and it’s a story best told in film; indeed, one suspects that it won’t fare nearly so well on home release, where a lounge room’s worth of distractions will deaden its impact considerably.

In the theatrical space, though, it’s hell on wheels, and an impressive achievement for Krasinski as a filmmaker (A Quiet Place marks his third at bat following 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and 2016’s The Hollars). The world created here is not, strictly speaking, a realistic one; a few minutes’ post-screening rumination punctures its assumptions pretty fatally (farting, as far too many social media would-be class clowns have noted, would be fatal in this universe), but it works perfectly and wonderfully on the screen and in the moment. As a director, Krasinksi demonstrates an admirable command of the tools at his disposal. Yes, there are moments of gore and action, but A Quiet Place works because it carefully and knowingly deploys an impressive array of simple, old school tricks of the trade to best effect. “Hitchcockian” is a cliche these days, and stylistically there’s not a lot here to connect Krasinski with the old master, but thinking purely in terms of building suspense, of raising and releasing tension, of set up and pay off – it’s appropriate. What we have here is a deliberate and carefully constructed film that never feels self-conscious, that never reveals its artifice in a gauche or deal-breaking manner.

Which is rare – the desire to be seen as an auteur with a singular voice drives a lot of filmmakers to overplay their hands, stylistically speaking. In contrast, Krasinski feels like a classicist, which ironically makes him stand out from the pack. While the use of sound here is the hook, the success of the film rests almost purely on simple, old-fashioned filmmaking skill, and that’s a trick Krasinski has down cold.

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Starting school is a tough enough time for everyone, but it’s all the more tougher for young Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who has been home-schooled until grade five because he has a severe facial difference as a result of a genetic disorder. Now, his parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), having decided to enrol him in a private school for the sake of socialisation, Auggie, a bright kid who likes science, Star Wars, and Halloween, must negotiate life outside the protective bubble of his family for the first time ever.

Adapted from R.J. Palacio’s novel by director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallfower), Wonder traces a year in the life of not just the precocious and eminently likable Auggie, but also the people around him – we get separate threads from the point of view of his 15 year old sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), who feels like she’s always coming second to her special needs brother; his new best friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who likes Auggie but bends to the pressure of schoolyard bullying; his mother, who put her life plans on hold to care for him, and more.

But it’s Auggie who is the centre of the film, a smart, charming kid bearing up the weight of being visibly and permanently outside of the norm as best he can. He is, of course, not unaware of how other people see him; “Why do I have to be so ugly?” he wails at one point, and it’d take a particularly hard heart not to be moved by the poor kid’s plight.

Indeed, Wonder expertly aims for the heart at every turn. It’s openly manipulative stuff, but nonetheless effective, even if it occasionally strays past the point of plausibility or taste (there’s a bit of business with the family dog seemingly inserted because it’s been a good 15 minutes since we’ve had a bit of a cry). The whole thing is buoyed by a great cast, a wonderfully warm tone,  and a generally optimistic attitude; yes, there are bullies and anxieties and life can deal you a stunningly unfair hand, but Wonder takes place in a world where underdogs are championed and goodness of heart trumps social advantage – there’s value in spending time in a world like that, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.

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In Suburbicon, director and co-writer Clooney and writers Joel and Ethan Coen, and Grant Heslov, set out to explore the underbelly of the titular late 1950s community. The suburbs have always been Gothic, the darkness behind (or below) the neat rows of houses was always there, hidden beneath the veneer. It lurks in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989), and even Desperate Housewives, (sorry, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet doesn’t qualify; its location is the small town, the darkness of Frank Booth et al is geographically ‘elsewhere’, likewise most movies adapted from Stephen King books).

Among the rows of neatly manicured lawns, small houses, and clean streets, life in Suburbicon appears straight forward. The 1950s suburb is beautifully evoked in the film’s art design and opening sequence. To its post-war boomer inhabitants the community feels safe and happy, everyone wrapped up warmly in their smug sense of themselves, talking to the postman and making custard pies. Until a black family, the Meyers (Leith M Burke and Karimah Westbrook), move in and the all-white suburb erupts into racism. In the house bordering the rear of the Meyers’, lives Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wheelchair bound wife Nancy, her carer and twin-sister Margaret (Julianne Moore), and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). But the veneer of this wholesome family is shattered one night when two robbers pay a visit.

These twin narratives are almost-linked through the vague friendship of each family’s sons, but ultimately the majority of the film focuses on the Lodges and a predicament that almost seems to echo the Coens’ more noir inspired works (watch out for the appearance of a VW Beetle, a nod to the brothers’ debut, Blood Simple). In part the story, which slips between uneasy comic tones and crime drama, echoes the brothers’ better thrillers – Suburbicon was apparently first written in 1986 immediately after Blood Simple – but it lacks the power of that work and the wry, witty intelligence of films such as Fargo.

While Clooney’s direction is efficient, the script lacks the necessary intensity, the cast – and Moore especially – deliver good performances, and as an ensemble piece the film is not without charm, but lacking the necessary narrative focus it becomes hard to care about the protagonists, and by the inevitable third act neither story climaxes with the necessary emotional power.

Suburbicon wants to say something about violence, about the darkness behind the twitching curtains, about the smiles that hide lies, about the fear of the outsider, about the motives that drive people, and about the undercurrent of the suburban dream of 1950s USA. But despite evoking the period through great design, the film just doesn’t live up to the sum of its parts.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Suburbicon