When I watched A Quiet Place in theaters three years ago, like many, I was unnerved by the weight of the horror film’s immersive, awful, world-shattering silence. Last week, when I saw A Quiet Place Part II, it was the first time in a long time I’d been in a theater or in any room with so many people. The experience was personally emotional, yet I noted with irony how, in a film predicated on silence I was made incredibly aware of how noisy a cinema is. All the ambient sounds—the crunch of popcorn, the squeak of tight jeans against vinyl seats, the whimper of anticipation—made me intimately conscious of the presence and closeness of fellow cinema-goers. In the logic of the film, these sounds could kill me; in the logic of our reality, until a few months ago, even their breaths could do the same.
Watching a postapocalyptic film more than a year into a global pandemic is an exercise in the uncanny. The dystopian vignettes of deserted streets and shuttered stores too intimately reflect what was very recently our own dystopian reality under Covid-19.
It follows, perhaps, that A Quiet Place Part II has been criticized for not being imaginative enough—either for being overly committed to realism (a strange critique for a monster film) or not offering enough background on the characters or monsters. Many critics seem to have forgotten that the film was in fact set to be released right before the pandemic hit. The film premiered in New York on March 8, 2020, but repeatedly delayed its theatrical release due to Covid. For a film produced before the pandemic was on the horizon, it was in fact uncannily prescient about many of the challenges we have since encountered, making its belated release ironically timely.
Already aware of the premise from the original, the audience is made jumpingly aware of noise in the sequel, and the film manipulates this to great effect. We flinch at the crackle of a plastic water bottle, bristle at the growl of a car engine, hold our breath at the clopping of boots. The film plays cleverly and counterintuitively with sound, deftly able to make visible the invisible and the inaudible, audible —giving shape to silence as an absence of sound that cannot but be heard. The “silence” of the world, for example, is both heightened and brought into sharp relief by the amplification of ambient noise: bird song, cicadas, leaves rustling. Our world, even without us, is never actually quiet.
I have no interest in defending the original and sequel’s problematic politics. If the first film could be read as commentary on white racial fears, the second removes this possibility. Cringingly, people of color in Pt II are either made to appear imprudent and used as convenient scapegoats, or are sacrificed as noble martyrs for the survival of the white Abbott family. One cannot but recall Nancy Pelosi’s terrible gaffe in referring to George Floyd’s death as his “sacrifice for justice.” In addition to an uncomfortable glorification, reliance, and romanticization of guns, in the first film, there is the homage to reproductive futurism: Evelyn (played by Emily Blunt) shudders, “Who are we, if we can’t protect [our children]?” Even the indomitable Blunt breathtakingly emerges—if briefly— in full “Karen” glory when she demands that her traumatized erstwhile neighbor with literal skeletons in his closet, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), risk his life to bring her daughter back to her.
But the film also manages to offer some worthwhile questions. When the Abbott family first chance upon Emmett in an abandoned steel mill, he’s reluctant to help them. In fact, he has retreated so fully into isolation that an airtight blast furnace serves as his literal and metaphorical inner sanctum—one that offers protection with the threat of asphyxiation. It is this tension that A Quiet Place Part I and II explore more broadly as well: A gunshot can save your life, but invariably draws more death-dealing creatures. America and many other countries reckoned with this over the course of the pandemic as many people suffered with issues like mental health and domestic abuse in lockdown; conversely, premature reopenings or social events that felt uplifting to a life-giving degree ultimately led to more severe waves of infections, and invariably more death. Emmett’s inner sanctum acts as a symbol for his asceticism and his refusal to engage with the world. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin casts two forms of liberty, positive and negative. Negative liberty describes the absence of barriers to one’s freedom, whereas positive liberty denotes the possibility of acting to take control of one’s life. Positive liberty, however, presents a paradox: In an oppressive system, one may alter one’s own beliefs, convince oneself that one’s desires have shrunk, retreating “into an inner citadel” in which one feels content. This is literally what Emmett has done and the strength of the film lies in getting him—and us— to recognize that what is necessary in the face of disaster is actually the opposite.