John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place is, in my opinion, one of the finest modern horror movies produced. In an era of pristine camera movements and “elevated horror,” it stands out as a film trying to be a solid thriller. It succeeds, and the reason lies in some very simple screenwriting concepts.
*mild spoilers ahead*
A Quiet Place follows a family as they exist in a world where they can’t make any noise. If they do, it will attract creatures that can easily kill them. The film centers around one such attack, and how the family Lee (Krasinski), Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and Marcus (Noah Jupe) all survive.
However, like most good movies, that’s not really what the movie is about. Regan is deaf, and has accidentally caused the death of her younger brother. This has strained her relationship with her father, and the rest of the family. The movie is really about how those relationships come to a mend.
That “what the movie is really about,” is commonly known as the theme. The theme will guide the narrative. In A Quiet Place, the theme is, “Not talking about a traumatic situation is not the way to forgiveness.” The family’s inability to communicate is the problem, and the story is about their journey to solving that ... while also getting away from the space-alien monsters.
Something important about the theme is how it relates to internal logic. As a screenwriter, you can’t simply ask an audience to go along with anything, you have to meet them halfway. This is especially difficult with a film like A Quiet Place, where the events of the story are rooted in fantasy. Because the audience is automatically wondering “Why haven’t these people just died?” or “Where did the aliens come from?,” the emotional narrative of the story has to be especially strong. The initial script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck engages the audience with different on-the-page elements, including charts and graphs. More importantly, they include the emotional narrative. Krasinski, in his rewrite, takes this and runs with it, focusing this narrative into intense symbols.
A symbol is an object in a story that holds some type of thematic or emotional weight. In A Quiet Place, symbols include: the hearing aid, the sand trails, the small toy space shuttle. All of these things are tied to the way the family interacts and that central conflict. What’s important, too, is that they are immediately tied to the world around them. They interact with the world. The space shuttle is what got the younger brother killed, the sand trails are to keep the family from making noise and keep them on a closed off path, the hearing aid literally is not working, and then when it works, the communication is reestablished and the family is able to beat at least one of the monsters.
This is intensified in the film’s use of sound, a symbol in A Quiet Place. It is used as a malleable emotional object that forces the audience to lean in. The way that all of this lines up helps build a stronger, more emotional narrative.
It does one other thing, though:
Because all these emotional narrative elements work, the internal logic of the movie works. Because the audience identifies the truth, and the emotional impact of these characters and objects, they accept the fact that there are space-alien monsters that hear super well. They accept the fact that the family just figured out a system in which they can survive. They accept the fact that, even if the sequence feels slightly illogical, Blunt’s mother character hiding behind a stream of running water that masks the sound from a monster a few inches from her face works. As a side note, the symbolic mirroring of that running water, and an earlier waterfall sequence, is just another layer that makes the screenwriting and direction on A Quiet Place so good.
What that full page and a half is for is to set up the important pieces of why a film like A Quiet Place works thematically ... and why A Quiet Place II doesn’t.
But before I go any further, I want to mention that I think A Quiet Place II is a very competent and entertaining suspense thriller. The visual language is as strong as ever, Krasinski is really good at setups and payoffs, and by themselves, the horror sequences are extremely engaging. But as good as all of that is, the internal logic of the film doesn't quite hold up like the original.
Reason being, the main characters don’t have a concrete arc. The only person that gets an arc is a subplot character. Regan (Millicent Simmonds), much like last time, is given the brunt of the story here. Simmonds is excellent, like last time. In fact, everyone is awesome, but—she doesn’t have an arc. There’s not a place that she starts, and a place that she ends. She starts projecting sound to kill the monsters, and she ends projecting sound to kill the monsters. Where the film does attempt to make an arc, it’s for Emmett (Cillian Murphy). He starts out thinking people aren’t worth saving, and ends literally putting himself between Simmonds and a space-alien monster. Even as his arc is played out, it’s off to the side. We’re not following him. We’re following Regan, who never changes. This lack of change means there isn't a focused theme to the story.
The symptoms of this are two-fold. The lack of emotional connection strands all the interesting visual ideas in a sea of set piece upon set piece. As compelling as a sequence that finds Evelyn trying to save her children is, it doesn’t emotionally do anything because there isn’t a shift in behavior or perspective.
It does the same for the visual language. There are a number of absolutely brilliant setups and payoffs in A Quiet Place II. An oxygen tank is set up and paid off in a terribly disturbing way. There’s a similar payoff that comes with the locking mechanism of a furnace that is almost pitch perfect ... but they aren’t symbols. They don’t mean anything in the larger scheme of the story, other than an in-the-moment obstacle.
Sometimes, I feel like that is OK. There are plenty of great films where in order to get to 90 minutes, there’s a superfluous conflict to keep things lively. Those films typically have a character making choices that indicate some kind of change within them, though. It’s a lot less noticeable in that case.
This also makes the whole piece a little less believable. Because there isn’t an emotional place to latch onto, all the more unrealistic elements start to stick out. As a viewer, I’m not beyond putting in work to engage with a story, but the film should meet you halfway. When the film puts a small boy’s leg in a bear trap, and asks the audience to not ask questions when said trap doesn’t absolutely obliterate his ankle, it’s a lot more difficult to engage with that because we’re taking it at face value. There isn’t some emotional buffer to hold us in. The internal logic doesn’t exist. The film just happens.
That’s really disappointing, though I feel like I’ve been too hard on the sequel. There are plenty of films out there that don’t bother to give you good visual language. Films that wouldn’t ask you to lean in, as Emmett makes a fundamental choice to sacrifice himself. A Quiet Place II is simply the type of film that proves sometimes all the craft, and all the theory, doesn’t actually create a compelling narrative. It’s the depth of a character’s journey. The choices that change them into a new person. No amount of theatrics can mask an empty arc because everything in your script is tied to it.
*Feature Photo: Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place Part II / Paramount Pictures