I’m not sure how America’s most charisma-free movie star wound up becoming one of our most effective suspense directors, but here we are. With A Quiet Place Part II, John Krasinski confirms that the taut brilliance of the first A Quiet Place was no fluke. He proves his mastery right from the opening sequence, a stomach-gnawing flashback to the day the sound-seeking aliens first came to the quiet town of Millbrook. The creatures arrive during a Little League game (of course, this being the Real America™ and all) and the ensuing mayhem — shot in intercutting long takes, with the sound dropping in and out as the camera’s perspective switches among the members of the Abbott family (the daughter, Regan, played by Millicent Simmonds, is deaf) — offers a perfect example of carefully calibrated onscreen chaos. Even as everything goes to hell — as sprinting humans are snatched by leaping, horrifying spider-monsters, and vessels fall from the sky, and traffic lights explode, and cars fly into each other — we also witness how the Abbotts first realized that the aliens were primarily attracted to sound, and how the family’s ability to use sign language served our heroes in good stead.
In the movie’s present, occurring well after the events of that prologue and the first picture (during which, let’s not forget, Lee Abbott, the father — played by Krasinski himself — was killed), Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) struggles to find safe harbor for her surviving children Regan and Marcus (Noah Jupe, a nervous wreck whose wide-eyed, debilitating terror at everything around him might have felt like an annoying contrivance elsewhere, but here feels extremely relatable). Evelyn also has a newborn baby that she keeps in a case, a little oxygen mask wrapped around the child’s head so as to stifle its cries.
Grim salvation comes for Evelyn and her kids in the form of their traumatized and grieving neighbor Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who has set up camp in an abandoned factory. For safety, they hide inside a furnace, with a towel placed against the latch to both muffle sound and prevent locking themselves in. (Guess what goes wrong eventually.) While inside, a clock on a timer reminds them when to step out and breathe more air. (Guess what else goes wrong eventually.) As bad a time as the Abbotts have had, it seems Emmett has had it even worse. His children, he tells Evelyn, died on the first day of the invasion. His wife later died of illness. (Guess whose corpse we run into during one of the film’s tenser moments.)
So, Emmett has lost his wife and his kids, and Evelyn and her kids have lost their husband and father, but there’s little time now for surrogate bonding. The lone surviving radio-station signal has been broadcasting the song “Beyond the Sea” nonstop, and Regan becomes convinced that the lyrics are a message telling them where to go to seek safety. When the young girl strikes out on her own to find a boat, Evelyn convinces the reluctant Emmett to go after her and bring her back. Much of the film intercuts between Emmett and Regan’s journey and Evelyn and Marcus back at the factory, as they deal with encroaching aliens and the slowly depleting oxygen for the baby.
It’s hard not to be reminded that A Quiet Place Part II was supposed to come out early last spring, when its release was abandoned due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (It had already screened for many critics, and some reviews had been filed.) It’s also hard not to relate on some fundamental level to the movie’s anxious, desperate, dystopian mind-set. Our world is obviously nothing like the devastated, postapocalyptic ruin onscreen, but after a year in which so many of us wound up having to exercise the more paranoid, survivalist sides of our personalities, this sort of thing just hits different.
It’s not quite cathartic — human civilization in these pictures is too far gone for anything like that — but watching the film, you can sense some prehistoric, limbic corner of your brain coming to life yet again.
But A Quiet Place Part II doesn’t need contemporary relevance to work. As with the original, its success relies not so much on the broad strokes of its narrative (which still has its share of logical holes) as on the way Krasinski doles out both information and tension. Because the characters usually can’t talk, story beats and revelations have to be conveyed visually, through cinematic language. And because this is a thriller, everything has a very strict timeline. This genre relies on our understanding narrative turns and the characters’ thinking exactly when a movie needs us to. It’s “high level of difficulty” stuff, and yet Krasinski brings subtlety and artistry to it, too. He suggests key plot points through not just basic images and cuts but also through repetition and sound — such as the bit with the towel on the furnace latch, which I’m not sure ever even gets its own close-up. He also uses texture beautifully: A shot of a bare foot quietly hesitating before it steps on a path covered in dry, loud leaves pulls us into the close-quarters world of the film, because we can always connect to the tactile, to the elemental.
“Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” That was one of Billy Wilder’s tips for storytellers, advice he himself learned at the feet of the great Ernst Lubitsch. Of course, Wilder and Lubitsch’s métier was romantic comedies, and thrillers have always had to rely more on imagery and suggestion. (Also, I hereby apologize to my fellow film snobs for comparing John Krasinski to Ernst freaking Lubitsch.) But it’s a lesson that Hollywood, in its growing embrace of cacophony and sprawl, has tended to forget. Beyond the many jump scares involving aliens and the terrifically terrified-out-of-their-wits performances, what makes A Quiet Place Part II special is the sheer joy we get from feeling like we’re in the hands of a confident filmmaker. The movie is out in theaters, and it finally seems safe to go to theaters. Consider seeing this on the biggest screen possible.