Article Thumbnail

In Post-Apocalyptic Thrillers, It’s Hell to Be a Dad

And a few other thoughts about the surprise horror smash ‘A Quiet Place’

In A Quiet Place, murderous, scary-looking aliens have taken over Earth. They can’t see shit, but they have an incredible sense of sound. Make even the slightest noise, and they’ll swoop in out of nowhere and tear you to shreds. That means the few remaining survivors have to live in utter silence: As the film’s tagline warns, if they hear you, they hunt you.

That obviously makes life hard on the film’s Lee Abbott, the patriarch of his family, which includes pregnant wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and sweet son Marcus (Noah Jupe). Almost as tough: He’s a dad trying to live up to the burden of being what we expect in a father — the protector, the leader, the rock. Because after all, when society falls apart, it’s the father who has to step up.

Lee shouldn’t feel too bad, though: He’s in a proud tradition of cinematic dads who have had to represent The Pressures of Fatherhood.

In The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, Viggo Mortensen plays the unnamed father who travels with his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) across a desolate, post-nuclear-annihilation wasteland. Mortensen isn’t just tasked with protecting the boy from cannibals and starvation — one of the film’s underlying themes is that this father is trying to teach his son about masculinity. Smit-McPhee’s character looks up to him as the sole example of manhood in a world bereft of good people, relying on dear ol’ dad for shelter, food and life itself. As the movie rolls along, it becomes clearer that Mortensen can’t safeguard his kid forever — eventually, he’ll die and the child will have to become the man. The Road is a primal, grisly father-and-son tale about how dads are everything to their sons.

Last year’s indie horror It Comes at Night also grappled with a father’s fear that his broad shoulders weren’t sufficient in the face of civilization’s collapse. Joel Edgerton played Paul, whose family is among the survivors of a mysterious plague that’s eradicated most of humanity. They spend their days boarded up in a house in the woods, hoping to keep the infected out, and Paul considers it his core goal to protect his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and son (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.).

Then one day, they come across another family (led by Christopher Abbott) who aren’t infected but need a place to hide out. Paul is distrustful, but he relents and lets them in. Much to his shock, though, it’s not the unease that they’re actually infected that proves worrying to Paul — it’s that, with another man in the house, suddenly he’s not the unquestioned patriarch, causing him to doubt his worth and make him feel threatened.

In A Quiet Place, Krasinski (who directed and co-wrote the script) also gives the embattled-father trope a twist. For much of the film, Lee is very much the reliable patriarch, dutifully taking care of each family member’s needs and disregarding his own. For his pregnant wife, he’s the caring, sensitive husband, even sharing a quick, silent slow dance with her inside their house. For his deaf daughter, he’s working diligently to create a new cochlear implant out of spare parts, trying and failing again and again but determined to get it right. As for his son, Lee wants to teach the boy how to become the man of the house should anything happen to him. There’s a selfless, giving quality to Lee — he may be the ultimate Post-Apocalyptic Father, sacrificing everything for the good of his clan.

At the same time, though, A Quiet Place argues that, as much as fathers are expected to do for their families, others can step up, too. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that the movie gives the other characters opportunities to stand on their own two feet and fight these scary alien creatures without the help of dad. And during a crucial moment when Lee is too far away to do anything, the rest of the Abbotts become their own protectors. It’s a fun twist, but also a corrective to the somewhat self-martyring qualities of a lot of these thrillers.

Yes, dads do so much — but in the best families, everybody lends a hand, and the father understands that he can’t always be Superman.

Here are a few other takeaways from A Quiet Place. (And fair warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. It’s great that Krasinski got to make this movie. If he didn’t look like Krasinksi, though, he might have been able to.

A Quiet Place is the third film that Krasinski has directed. His first two, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and The Hollars, were low-budget indies that made no money and got pretty bad reviews. So one of the happy side effects of A Quiet Place’s weekend box-office success (right around $50 million) is that it validates Krasinski’s faith in himself as a filmmaker — he didn’t give up, and now he has a hit that strengthens his credentials as a commercial director.

That’s a great story — not to mention proof that actors can escape pigeonholes. (I’m sure a lot of people assumed he’d always just be Jim from The Office.) But it’s worth pointing out that the reason Krasinski got this opportunity to show what he could do was … well, he got the opportunity. It’s not like it was an easy sell — Krasinski himself has admitted that he had to convince Paramount that he wouldn’t screw up the movie — but it’s nonetheless a revealing, slightly damning indication of how Hollywood works.

Krasinski’s disappointing directorial résumé was hardly the road map to getting a studio movie, albeit one whose budget was only $17 million. But Hollywood tends to let white men have second or third chances as filmmakers. Here are but two examples:

By comparison, female directors and people of color are often viewed as this massive risk when they’re allowed to helm a studio project, even if they have a proven track record. This grim reality is getting better — Jordan Peele had one of 2017’s biggest films with Get Out, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is the highest-grossing Marvel movie of all time — but there’s still a sense that if you’re not a white guy, the opportunities aren’t always there. As Dee Rees, who directed the acclaimed 2011 indie Pariah and earned raves for last year’s Mudbound put it, “If I were a white guy who had done Pariah, my next film would have been huge. I do think there’s a different trajectory. Films are talked about differently. It’s like a film by an independent black director gets talked about for who made it, not for what the film is.”

To be clear, I’m happy that Krasinski got to make A Quiet Place and that Gunn made the Guardians films. They’re all good movies — and good reminders that directors sometimes don’t find their groove on their first try. But I’d like for those kinds of second chances to extend to everybody.

And maybe that’s starting to happen. When Oscar-nominated Ava DuVernay made A Wrinkle in Time, it was seen as a major breaking-the-glass-ceiling moment for women and people of color. Because the movie has underperformed, there might have been a concern that she wouldn’t be given another chance. Not so: Last month, it was announced that she’d be directing The New Gods, a huge comic-book movie for Warner Bros.

That’s progress.

#2. There need to be more movies about the importance of shutting the hell up.

Anybody who sees A Quiet Place will be aware of its clever hook. As a result, I noticed something very interesting at my screening: Because the characters had to be quiet, so was the audience. It’s not like press screenings are rowdy affairs, but I sensed that everybody in the room was so invested in what was happening that they were being quiet almost out of fear — as if we were in the same predicament as the movie’s family. If we made noise, maybe it would doom the Abbotts.

For years, theaters have battled with their patrons over being quiet during movies, practically begging people to turn off their phones and refrain from talking. Anybody who goes to a multiplex knows how well these efforts have paid off: Lots of assholes are still making noise, behaving as if the theater is their living room. While watching A Quiet Place, I fantasized about the possible commercials theater chains could start running in the wake of its success to encourage viewers to shut up during screenings — e.g., ushers dressed as aliens pouncing on offending patrons.

That fantasy won’t come true, but you have to tip your hat to A Quiet Place, which celebrates the importance of silence. We’re so used to films inundating us with volume — especially horror movies — but here’s one that suggests that a total lack of noise can be the scariest thing in the world.

#3. Here’s why we love seeing married couples play married couples.

A Quiet Place stars Krasinski and Blunt, who are married in real life. Everybody knows this, and the couple have talked about it a ton during the movie’s promotional rounds. (In fact, Blunt even convinced her husband to fire the unnamed actress he’d initially cast because she really wanted to be in the movie.)

Occasionally, movies will feature real-life couples, and there’s always a voyeuristic thrill in watching people play-act their relationships on the big screen. Part of the appeal is simple curiosity. We’re all obsessed with other people’s relationships — wondering how they tick and looking for cracks in the armor — and so a film like A Quiet Place gives us an opportunity to play marriage counselor and diagnose the couple’s strengths and weaknesses. Never mind that these are movies and probably nothing like the actors’ real lives — for a couple hours, we can pretend we have a window into their world.

Of course, there have been several cases of real-life couples — married or not — teaming up for a film, resulting in disaster. Gigli was the result of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s love for one another. Sean Penn probably doesn’t want to remember that he made Shanghai Surprise with Madonna. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie fell in love on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but the next time they did a film together, it was the woebegone marital drama By the Sea, the couple separating soon thereafter. Even Eyes Wide Shut, which is a good movie, was for years blamed for the divorce of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise — which Kidman has spent the rest of her life disputing.

If we’re gonna be silly and analyze a couple’s marital health based on a film, A Quiet Place suggests that Krasinski and Blunt are doing just fine. Their characters are very much aligned in their fight to stay alive, and the actors have a warm, loving rapport that’s even stronger because of their horrifying ordeal. If anything, the movie can be read as a commentary on the struggles of marriage and parenthood. When the whole world’s falling apart, all you’ve got is your partner.