by Alvin G. Burstein
A Quiet Place is not just another horror flick retreading the well-worn War of the Worlds trope. It involves us in an exploration of the meaning of family, introducing themes of tenderness, loss and love. It takes us from horror to terror, involving us with a family that demonstrates courage and resilience in the face of near unmanageable threat. There is a hint of stereotyping in the emphasis on women as givers of life, and fathers as providing security. But the former is consonant with the unearthing of prehistoric female idols; the latter, with the patriarchal mode of both Christianity and Freudian Oedipal theory.
The Abbot family are survivors of an invasion of the world by blind monsters with hyper-acute hearing. They attack anything that makes noise. The movie opens with the family scavenging for supplies in an abandoned, near ruined store. They move in scrupulous silence, a silence that endures for most of the film. The three children and their parents, adept at ASL because the oldest child, Regan, a pre-teen, was born deaf, silently communicate by sign language. Her two younger brothers are Beau, four, and Marcus, a few years younger than Regan. In the store, Beau is fascinated by a battery operated toy rocket ship. His father, Lee, takes it away from him because of its noise making potential. To be safe, Lee removes its batteries but Regan covertly returns the toy to Beau, who, when no one is looking, impulsively grabs the batteries.
On the long, silent trek back to their farm, Beau, trailing the others, sets off the toy and an extra-terrestrial flashes across the screen, killing him. The rest escape to the silent safety of their farm dwelling.
A year passes as the family grieves but Regan is burdened with guilt. In his underground workshop Lee tries to reach other survivors by short wave radio, and works on a cochlear aid that will help Regan hear. Regan, guilt and resentment smoldering, refuses to try his device. When Lee takes Marcus on a field trip to teach him survival skills, Regan feels rejected and leaves the home to visit Beau’s grave.
The mother, Evelyn, has become pregnant. While the others are away, she leaves the basement to visit Beau’s bedroom one last time. Her amniotic bag bursts, and in her hurry to return to the sound proofed basement, she impales her heel on an exposed nail in the stairs. She clumsily breaks a picture frame, bringing a monster to the basement. Struggling to remain silent in her labor, she triggers a signal light to alert the family to the emergency, and immerses herself in the bathtub to give birth. When Lee sees the lights, he sends Marcus to set off fireworks to distract the monsters and returns home to find Evelyn and the newborn son. Evelyn insists that Lee go to find Regan and Marcus.
As the plot unfolds, gender related issues take surprising, perhaps unsettling, twists, the details of which I will leave for the audience. I will point out the synchronicity between Regan’s deafness and the monsters’ auditory hyper-acuity and raise the question of the symbolic meaning of Evelyn’s wound. And I will risk the spoiler of saying that the movie ends with Regan and her mother facing extra-terrestrials on their own.
Otto Rank, one of the early psychoanalysts, argued that the unspoken trauma of birth leaves a deep, equally unspeakable, mental residue. Ernest Becker built on Rank’s views, insisting that the uniquely human, terrifying knowledge of one’s mortality is only partially counterbalanced by symbolic rituals warding off that awful recognition. Horror/terror films are such rituals—a kind of controlled terror seeking mastery of that experience.
But the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins warns us:
”O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.”