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SXSW 2018: ‘A Quiet Place’ scares, thrills an enthusiastic opening night crowd

Joe Gross

** mild spoilers ahead, but we do our best to keep them to a minimum**

There are few things that will spoil a filmmaker more than the unbridled enthusiasm of a SXSW opening night crowd at the Paramount. The cheers, the venue, the screaming (especially, perhaps, from those SXSW first-timers who choose front row balcony seats without realizing those seats were made when most people were about 5’5″) — it is an ego boost for the ages.

There is much to enjoy about “A Quite Place,” but one would do well not to pull on any of the plot threads, lest it unravel.

John Krasinski, directing only his third feature from a script by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and Krasinski, delivers a solid genre picture with a remarkably high concept that folks seemed to go nuts for Friday night.

Starring Krasinski, his real-life wife Emily Blunt, and two terrific child actors (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe), “A Quiet Place” is a bit of a challenge to discuss without giving too much away.

A title card says “DAY 89.” There’s an abandoned town, a wall of missing person flyers, no signs of life — everyone is long gone. A family moves very quietly through an abandoned drug store, looking for supplies. A child wants a toy, the father tells him in sign language that it is too noisy. (One of the children is deaf, played by real-life deaf actress Simmons — all of the family knows ASL, which comes in mighty handy when you have to be quiet all the time.)

There is a reason everyone is keeping mum, but we don’t yet know why. Minutes later, the “why” becomes all too clear: a sound is made, tragedy strikes, swift and violent. The situation recalls “The Road,” “The Walking Dead” and, say, “Alien” all at once. It’s a striking start — Krasinski, who has struggled a bit finding his directorial voice and is a guy who’s admitted not being much of a genre fan, might have a flare for genre pictures, perhaps the way Nicolas Meyers, who wasn’t much of a sci-fi guy, ended up being the perfect choice for “Star Trek II.”

Cut to DAY 472. The family, cannily unnamed, continue to live their life on a secluded farm in near-silence — if they make a sound, they will probably die. But family life, with its complicated dynamics, must go on. Blunt and Krasinski do a strong job as parents who must both keep their family alive, educated and as normal as possible.

Which doesn’t make “A Quiet Place” a silent film; indeed, sound — its presence, its absence, its potential — is massively important to the story.  Indeed, a cochlear implant and its functionality are key plot points — this is a movie about what you can and cannot hear as much as anything you see on screen.

Which makes things a bit frustrating when MASSIVE stabs from the score emphasize jump-scare moments.

Kudos to the filmmakers for not slathering the action in music but one wished for even less — once you have established that sound  = death, almost any non-diagetic music or sound feels like an invasion. Our suspension of disbelief is hanging by a thread as it is, as the audience really is left a bit in the dark as to the situation the rest of the world is in. Is this the last family alive? Have communications really become so spare? Just how silent must these folks be (it seems to change in a few spots).

As the story unfolds, it’s clear “A Quiet Place” works best as a tense fable, a “Twilight Zone” blown into 90 often-gripping minutes — What can we do to protect our children? What if they cannot be protected? In upstate New York, can anyone hear you scream?