- Director John Krasinski used visual language to build one of the most terrifying opening sequences without using a single word in “A Quiet Place.”
- “A Quiet Place” achieves this through minimal visual exposition – five opening images actually tell you all there is to know about the world.
- “A Quiet Place Part II” is now playing in theaters.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: How do you make a horror film that avoids sound? Let’s take a look at the opening of “A Quiet Place” to see how John Krasinski both establishes a world and puts on a master class in tension building with one near-perfect 10-minute sequence.
With just one title card and four corresponding shots, Krasinski achieves the first role of an opening: establishing the world. And how “A Quiet Place” achieves this is through minimal visual exposition. Although they might seem pretty random, the five opening images actually tell you all there is to know about the world. The title card hints at a major event that has occurred before the film, and the next three consecutive shots affirm and establish a post-apocalyptic world.
In fact, these minimal visual expositions are everywhere, from a child’s drawing that hints at the creatures’ extraterrestrial origins to a newspaper that explicitly states what the danger is. Choosing to leave more out than in lends the film a sense of mystery while offering the bare minimum of information to follow the plot.
The second role of an opening is identifying the visual language. Every film has a unique style and tone in which it tells a story. In the case of “A Quiet Place,” that languages is “show, don’t tell.” This technique is most evident in the opening sequence mentioned prior. The title card establishes a specific time frame, and the next three consecutive shots establish that law and order have collapsed. People have abandoned their homes, and society is in ruin. Finally, a wall of missing people signifies that danger is still lurking in the corners.
Contrary to popular belief, “A Quiet Place” does not take inspiration from the classic silent films, but rather modern visual films. While silent films that physically lack sound rely on exaggerated visuals, emotions, and movements to keep the audience’s attention, visual films ignore the present sound to rely on simple, yet precise shots and edits to visually convey information. Krasinski refers to two main sources of inspiration, the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” The latter also features a 14-minute opening sequence with no spoken dialogue that can also be entirely understood without any sound.
Take a closer look at their respective screenplays, and the similarities are even more obvious. Visual films rely on these long and specific scene descriptions that visualize almost everything, from the props to the movement of the characters, the tempo of the edits, and even the direction of the camera.
This unique “show, don’t tell” approach can be identified everywhere. Instead of having to explain the daughter’s disability, all we need is a single close-up. Want to establish that making a sound can be dangerous? This is all you need to show.
This is also the reason why the film relies so heavily on reaction shots, more specifically, characters reacting to one another. While a line that clearly expresses a character’s emotion might be more convenient, sometimes a gaze or a change in expression can be enough to deliver it more convincingly. In fact, the opening is chock-full of these reaction shots, which establish the relationship between the characters and convey a range of emotions, like affection, sadness, fear, and, ultimately, dread.
Which brings us to the final and most important rule of an opening: engaging the audience. In a horror film like “A Quiet Place,” that’s usually achieved by scaring the audience. Except this film has a crucial limitation in that department. Sound. Take any scene from a horror film… and watch it without sound. And it will most likely never feel as scary. To get around this limitation, Krasinski chooses tension over an outright scare. Sometimes it’s as simple as showing who we need to worry about right from the first image.
After visually associating sound with danger, Krasinski delivers three key moments that gradually build in tension, and they are all achieved in the most brilliant way: by not showing themselves, whether it’s the sister jumping in out of nowhere to catch a falling toy at the last second or the family gripped in fear by something the boy is holding that we can’t see. Krasinski cleverly uses the film’s “show, don’t tell” approach to deliver a unique sort of tension. Of the entire 10 minutes, almost a minute and a half is dedicated to this sort of tension building up until the final moment.
The boy, whom the audience already knows will be the source of trouble, is shot only from a distance or partially hidden until that dreadful noise begins offscreen. For even heavier impact, the reveal happens twice: once through the ears of the parents and then through the perspective of the mute sister, who visually confirms the present danger. And as the film kills off the most innocent and powerless of the bunch, the audience is once again reminded of the gravity of the danger and the fact that anyone can die at any moment.
The reason why the opening to “A Quiet Place” is so brilliant is that it allows the film to go anywhere, establishing its unique world, rules, characters, and their struggles and traumas all in under 10 minutes. Because the role of an opening is not to open just the film, but to open its story to unlimited possibilities for its audience to enjoy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in April 2020.