A QUIET PLACE (2018)

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Most would instinctively describe cinema as a visual art-form, but one look at the history of everyone’s favourite (mostly) English-language cinema celeb-fest, the Oscars, shows that awards have been given for various aspects of a film’s audio since the third award ceremony in 1930 (Best Sound Recording). Whilst it’s not uncommon to have discussions about favourite soundtracks and movie themes, if A Quiet Place doesn’t cast sound design into the public consciousness nothing will. From the sound of unseen foes approaching (even more effective when implemented as a wandering “sound element”, more on this later), heartbeats racing as the tension skyrockets, to the piercing feedback of a young girl’s cochlear implant, sound plays a crucial role in the generation of tension. Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack’s not half bad either, the veteran horror scorer at it again with a mix of dissonant ambient tracks implemented in moments of action or threat and decidedly Jóhann Jóhannsson-esque minimalist beauties to lift the more sentimental moments to a higher plane. I actually stayed for the credits just to note the composer, always a sure sign of a great soundtrack.

I am an audiophile. I have always been obsessed with music, radio, and sounds natural and not alike: thunderstorms, bike tyres on loose gravel, briefcase clasps closing, the sound of oars skimming the water’s surface (the best thing about rowing)… So it may surprise some who know me well that it wasn’t actually the sound effects or the music that most impressed me: it was the silence. “If they hear you, they hunt you.”: one glance at the movie’s tagline tells us we’re in for a lot of holding our breath and tip-toeing around. It’s a simple yet effective strategy, and the suspense created by noticing anything that could create or cause the slightest noise – or even not so slight, such as an upturned nail on the stairs or Evelyn’s (Emily Blunt) baby bump – is so intense that I found myself almost longing to just get it over and done with. Almost. In reality, the only moment of relief permitted by the film is a simple yell shared by father and son, protected by a barrier of noise provided by the deafening roar of a waterfall.

Going beyond elective silence, Evelyn and Lee’s (John Krasinski) young daughter Regan (like Millicent Simmonds who played her) is deaf, in itself not an entirely unique concept – a character’s deafness was also used to wonderful effect in 2016’s Hush (here I feel obliged to mention that the writing of A Quiet Place was already underway in 2013) – but a young girl and her family’s struggle to come to terms with her disability would be difficult enough without the imminent threat of death at the claws of an alien predator (or “Death Angels” as they are nicknamed). The family’s ability to communicate non-verbally, undoubtedly initially for Regan’s benefit, is what allowed them to adapt and survive in the soundless world that the majority of humankind had failed to adapt to (civilisation as we know it all but wiped out), and – without giving too much away – the unique challenges of facing such a condition ultimately provide the Abbotts with the knowledge necessary to have a fighting chance at survival again towards the film’s close. Perhaps I, having grown up with a close friend who himself has a cochlear implant, am particularly attune to such themes, but Regan’s reaction to another of Lee’s failed attempt to fix another aid and provide some degree of hearing – fragile, restrained, and utterly devastating – left me in tears, and is unquestionably my favourite scene in the film. The maturity of such restraint in the face of pain, both physical and emotional, is what really makes this film so special (testament to the talents of Blunt and Millicent in particular, without whose measured and delicate performances such emotional impact would have been lost).

More than just a scary concept with a lot of jump scares, A Quiet Place is about a family’s ability to adapt and overcome. Here, we leave behind the all too familiar “every man for himself” survival concept in favour of a family’s altruism, and there is no limit to how far they will go to save each other. It’s a story of loss and sacrifice, and of acceptance. If I had to describe A Quiet Place in a word, it would not be “fear”, but “love”.

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PS: I normally wouldn’t talk too much about where I watched a film, but in this instance I feel I must say a few words before I go, as it enhanced the experience so much. A Quiet Place was the first film I have watched in a screen fitted with Dolby’s “Atmos”, showcased spectacularly by this film in which sound is so important. I’m not very well informed on the particulars of how it works, but sound elements move in a three dimensional space rather than the conventional “channels” used previously, giving a move specific sense of location (including a sense of “height”).

Not directly relevant to the film itself but definitely adding to my enjoyment of the visit (more specifically my first to an Odeon “Luxe” cinema), was the intense comfort of the auditorium. The cinema was absolutely packed – usually something that can feel quite claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and ultimately distracting – but everything about the room’s design leaves only one thing to give your attention to: the film (and so I did – only occasionally snapping back to reality at the odd shriek from one particularly timorous member of the audience seated further along the row to my right). All the seats in the auditorium were incredibly comfortable hand-stitched leather recliners with so much leg room that even when fully reclined I, at 6’1”, had enough room for a grown man to walk easily between my outstretched legs and the seat in front, minimising disruptions and eliminating distracting bumps in the back from the knees of the people sitting behind you. Each seat has its own private table for drinks and snacks, and two rather large armrests (goodbye awkward elbow bumping) which is both more comfortable and the added distance seems to make talking to the person next to you – a pet peeve of mine – more difficult or just less appealing, as nobody seemed to be doing it. Though on second thoughts the silence of the crowd (I have rarely seen a room so full so quiet) may have been equally to do with the quality of the film…

SE7EN (1995)

I don’t think I will ever tire of revisiting this neo-noir masterpiece. As a forensic biologist, it may not surprise many that I am not averse to a good crime film, but of the endless sea of such films this is one of very few that in my opinion possesses the necessary quality of story and acting to not only permit an enjoyable re-watch, but arguably demand at least one – despite one already knowing what’s in the box the outcome. In fact, it is only upon this most recent (at least fifth) viewing of the film that I questioned how an hour-and-one-minute drive could possibly have been taken us from the seemingly eternal torrential rain of the unnamed city in which the majority of the film is set to the bone dry expanse of desert of the final scene – requiring a degree of suspension of disbelief that may not have passed unnoticed if not for the quality of story.

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Aside from the gloomy colour design, weather, and very clever use of lighting (or lack thereof), it’s Seven’s expert use of the unknown and unseen that makes for such an intense experience. I am sure anyone who has lived at one point or another in a large city, particularly one blessed with bad weather (in my case growing up in London and later moving to Glasgow), feels a certain familiarity with “the city” (as close to a name as viewers are given, though known to have been inspired by a rather unhappy time spent by then-struggling screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker in New York). I am sure a large part of what makes this movie so impactful for many is that the events of the film could be unfolding in “our” city, whichever that is; no matter how shocking or sad, the stories that affect how safe we feel will always be the local ones – we can’t just write them off as some far-off evil from which we are safe and sound.

What’s more, none of the murders being investigated are shown on-screen (though the film does end with an execution), instead showing us the aftermath and leaving the rest up to our imagination. This breaks down the audience/film barrier, putting the action inside our heads and thereby forcing us to live the scene. In fact, in two cases – lust and envy – we don’t see the victim at all, and yet they are arguably the two most horrific and chilling crimes in the movie, thanks to both extremity of concept and accompanying performances (Leland Orser and Brad Pitt) so genuinely convincing that it’s hard to believe that you are watching actors and not real victims.

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We are biologically programmed to be afraid of the unknown – the ability to recognise and evade dangers (including identifying potential/novel threats) is a fundamental principle of survival of the fittest – and Seven exploits this masterfully. Until the killer’s surprising (but necessary – the police seemingly little closer to catching him than they were to begin with) decision to willingly hand himself in to the police just over two-thirds in (a surprise designed to include the identity of the actor portraying him; though now common knowledge, Kevin Spacey was not named in any of the film’s marketing or the opening credits), one is permitted an extremely limited picture of who the killer may be. This, combined with a collection of victims spanning a wide range of walks of life and socioeconomic status make him all the more terrifying (he could be anyone) and the crimes all the more unsettling (I am sure most of us can relate in some way, shape, or form to one of the victims).

“The only reason that I’m here right now is that I wanted to be.” – John Doe

The killer’s modus operandi seems particularly powerful in the current real-world climate of “lone wolf” attacks, in which an individual commits a violent act(s) fully knowing that they will/may die (e.g. suicide attack, murder-suicide, or “death-by-cop”) and/or make no attempt to evade capture, rather seeing themselves as a martyr/envoy for their cause. The most striking feature of “John Doe” is not only how sane, but how highly articulate and intelligent he seems (a not-entirely-unique concept, arguably most famously – and successfully – implemented in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs). The nineties’ shift away from the simple and senseless caricatures that litter the horror and thriller genres (not far from the rather generic serial killer profile of the first suspect in Seven) in favour of people who (if not for the blood stains and bandaged fingertips in this instance) could quite easily pass as lawyers, doctors, professors, or for that matter any other white collar job – the sort of person that society tells us we can trust – is arguably the most terrifying concept of all, as put so succinctly by Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset: “He’s not the devil. He’s just a man.”

In the context of his apparently increasing willingness to be typecast and/or accept minor roles in mediocre-yet-commercially-viable movies (though let’s not forget that most of us would be unwilling and/or unable to do any work at all beyond retirement age, let alone into our eighties), Freeman’s Detective Somerset is a refreshing reminder of the myriad outstanding performances that made his name one that could sell almost any movie. His on-screen chemistry with Brad Pitt (another stand-out performance in a filmography containing more than a handful of superb roles in legendary titles) arguably adds more emotional force to the movie than would have been provided by the script alone, as relatively little time is given to the building of relationships between characters or their personal lives. In fact, one of my few criticisms would be the relatively short screen-time given to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Tracy Mills: I believe developing her character would have greatly increased the film’s emotional impact; as it is she seems almost more of a plot device than a character. Spacey’s John Doe, much as Anthony Hopkins did with Hannibal Lecter’s Oscar-winning 15 minutes of screen time, reminds us that sometimes less really is more in the hands of a great actor (albeit one with a less meritorious personal life). He might not be on the screen for long, but in a performance like that, it only takes one word to steal the show…

 

“Detective.”