I am sure we have all heard of A Quiet Place at this point. The truth is I didn’t really like it. Not as much as everyone else seems to have. It was mostly an okay movie with a lot of gaping holes made even more wobbly by the blind praise it’s been given.
To be honest, parts of the movie didn’t sit well with me. But then other parts really stuck out. And maybe that disparity alone made the English major start flexing and I started to think about what I wanted the movie to be about — since people were insisting it was about something. So this is my reading of A Quiet Place as a feminist desperate to like A Quiet Place.
(Please note that SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. You have been warned.)
A Quiet Place opens in near silence. As an audience, we already know what is wrong (an alien race has attacked Earth hunting by sound alone) but otherwise, the film offers little explanation. It is a short story played out in three chapters, all of which open in medias res — which is to say, in the middle of things. Much has been made of the silence and the monsters and the cleverness of a horror film where noise becomes the terror. But very quickly it becomes obvious there is something more at play.
We follow a family intent on surviving: Beau is the youngest, but he doesn’t make it past the first chapter. The middle child is Marcus, insecure and often stumbling in his role as the only son for the majority of the film. Regan is the oldest, a young girl whose deafness undoubtedly helped the family since they already knew how to communicate in the quiet. And then there is the mother, Evelyn, and the father, Lee.
Director, co-writer, and star of the film, John Krasinski, has spoken at length about the “bigger picture” of the film. He hoped to create a horror film as a metaphor on family and the lengths to which parents will go to protect their own. In some ways, this message felt dated, relying on familiar and tired tropes as characters play into traditional roles and regressive gender politics come out in full force. But there are instances in the film that seem disparate to its more traditional tone. Intentional or not, in developing this story of family and tradition, the true horror in A Quiet Place becomes the regressive gender politics enforced by its patriarch. There are moments of tension and ultimately freedom that seem to highlight the dangers of this ultra-conservative, toxic masculinity. While it’s difficult to give credit to Krasinski, it’s an interesting theme in the story: the real threat to the Abbott family isn’t just an alien race hellbent on destroying humanity; it is the danger implicit in these narrow-minded and ultimately limiting gender roles. Suddenly, A Quiet Place is about more than just family, more than just survival; at the heart of it, A Quiet Place becomes an exploration of the inherent dangers of toxic masculinity.
To begin, it does not feel like a reach to apply gender politics to a reading of this film; after all, the story is fairly explicit in its instruction of gender roles. One needs to look no further than the father and main protagonist of the film, John Krasinski’s Lee Abbott.
This bearded, all-American man in his wool sweaters and thick beard seems most at home in the silence. He is, after all, the silent type–brusque, distant, emotionally stunted. It’s a type we’ve seen before: the stoic father, impenetrable in his severity, but somehow we’re meant to believe that’s just how he shows he cares.
He works hard for his family; that much is obvious. But he also refuses to emote. He rules with an iron fist, commanding the family with big eyes and harsh scowls. He will not talk to his daughter. He drags his son unwillingly along. He is tired and aloof. And he becomes the perfect embodiment of toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity has become a bit of a buzzword in modern culture. Put simply, it is an adherence to traditional male gender roles intent on restricting emotional expression in men and boys–except for rage, anger, and dominance. There is a societal expectation to be the alpha, to be the tough guy. And you see that all in Lee.
He is the last to be introduced in the opening scene. The family is shuffling quietly through an abandoned store looking for supplies. The mother, Evelyn, is busy with a sick Marcus. Regan is meant to be looking after the youngest, Beau. But when he almost drops a toy, the camera finally settles on the father. He is immediately stern, delivering a brusque speech in sign language about how they must be silent. And then he walks out the door. It’s immediately strange, this disregard for a real conversation. Of course, language is limited. But he is a four-year-old boy 89 days into a world upended. Perhaps a little more tender loving care could have been afforded. But the tension is never with the boys failing to connect with their father; it is the daughter.
Regan is an interesting character. Her deafness means they already know sign language, they’re already comfortable in the quiet. It is thanks to her they have a chance and yet they consistently see her deafness as a flaw rather than a strength: she cannot hear danger and so she cannot be trusted. But this is her first choice in the film, and it introduces the central emotional tension: she deliberately disobeys her father and she gives the toy back to the boy.
It is woman’s first transgression. Eve has ruined Eden.
Of course the toy goes off and of course Beau is killed by one of the creatures. Instantly, there is a jump in time but we all know who the film wants us to blame. Regan is guilty. She gave him the toy and everything that happened after that — Beau taking the batteries, Beau putting it together, Beau turning it on — has somehow fallen on her shoulders. And if her parents don’t feel that way, well, they have taken the need for silence as an excuse to never address it with her.
This middle chapter is perhaps most interesting. After the brutal death of the youngest in the first chapter, we cut to a perfectly kept farm, the corn tall and green, the mountains around them warm with summer. There are no aliens here, just a barn with wide open doors and dried flowers, an old farmhouse resplendently white. There are a few marks of the terror that has silenced the rest of the world — a scar along the hallway shows the monsters have been here — but otherwise, it is a pastoral paradise we are meant to be impressed by. And its all thanks to the gender roles made immediately obvious.
The wife is pregnant and still she gathers food, puts together dinner. She wears warm colors and looks suspiciously well kempt. There is the appearance of a happy home — board games and family prayer — but something feels fractured. Children walk barefoot alone, their anxiety and guilt and fear bottled up around parents unwilling to talk to them. And the father is distanced from the rest. In one moment, he sits alone on top of the silo and burns the memory of his youngest.
Here we see Lee as an embodiment of the hyper-masculine male. There is a brutal precision to the way he handles this loss: he has a wife, two kids, and another on the way to take care of; he cannot afford to care about the loss and so he lets it go.
If Krasinski meant to present a story about the importance of parental love, he got a lot more than he bargained for.
The movie then moves on to the third and final chapter. Of course, the terror is here but at first it is just a family drama. Regan again wanders unattended. Lee stops her from entering the family basement — a choice never clarified, but it seems like Lee doesn’t trust her. Perhaps he is worried she will turn on a radio or a TV without hearing it. Or maybe he doesn’t want her to see the hearing aids he’s been trying to fashion for her. It seems like the easiest solution would be to explain it to her, but he won’t. He refuses to communicate, refuses to show emotion, refuses to connect with his clearly struggling and emotional daughter.
Meanwhile, Evelyn is a character study unto herself. She is the poster child for the traditional mother. Pregnant, cooking, cleaning, teaching, trying to be an emotional sounding board for her children, trying to connect to her emotionally distant husband, still looking pretty in floral sundresses — ladies and gentlemen, how does she do it?
In one telling scene, she is sitting with Marcus. Lee comes gruffly in to say he’s ready to go and Marcus turns to his mother and begs to stay. He does not want to go. He’s scared to go. But she tells him the expected thing: “trust your father;” “he’s just trying to help;” “one day you’ll have to take care of me.”
It’s strange to watch her say this as she has clearly taken care of….everything else. One wonders more what Lee would do without her. She cooks and cleans, she gathers food, she has survived this long. And still she leans on this this tired role of the woman who needs protecting, the woman who will always need a man of the house. But it’s part of the trope, each of the parents playing into this unspoken expectation and it continues into the next scene.
The whole family ends up outside to bid farewell to the men. Regan insists she wants to go. Marcus insists he wants to stay. It seems like an easy solution. But Lee falls back on such a patriarchal standard he basically tells Marcus to man up. He refuses to see Regan as capable — perhaps because he still blames her for Beau’s death; perhaps because he cares about his little girl too much. Again, a little communication would go a long way. But he just stamps his foot and demands they listen to him.
This hyper-masculine display sets off a series of events that leads to disaster. If Krasinski meant to present a story about the importance of parental love, he got a lot more than he bargained for. In actuality, Lee’s failure to connect emotionally to his family has dire consequences. His resistance to seeing the strength of the women around him leads to disaster. And his insistence and self-importance completely upend Krasinski’s attempted celebration of traditional family life.
As viewers of the film know, things go wrong fairly quickly. With Lee gone with Marcus, Evelyn — pregnant and overworked — loses track of Regan and wanders through a home haunted with memories before suddenly going into labor. She walks downstairs and — in truly the most frightening sequence in the film — she steps on a nail that had been pulled loose earlier in the film. But the picture she’s carrying falls to the floor with a crash and the monsters soon appear.
The rest of the film is a chaotic overture of bad luck and bad choices. Lee and Marcus come back just in time to see the red lights signaling danger and they make enough noise to draw the monsters away. Proving again to be self-involved, Lee settles Evelyn away and blithely admits he’s lost track of the other children but it’s okay because “it worked.” It’s strange to hear him say this in a world where clearly nothing is working out. But he has complete confidence in himself and this world. She’s alive. The baby is alive. He took the lid off its soundproof crib because he’s confident his paradise will hold. How could it not? He built it.
But Evelyn is horrified he has lost the children. And it is here that she gives her great speech. Her entire existence is whittled down to one sentence: “Who are we if we can’t protect them?”
It’s an interesting message that robs each player of their own uniqueness. She wishes to be nothing but a mother — to lose herself in a role as protector. Again, she disregards her strengths and her skills and thinks she cannot be anything without being a mother first.
Lee takes this to heart. He must protect his kids — before communicating with them, connecting with them, caring for them. He is focused on the tangibility of physical life. He thinks his kids must be happy, they must know he loves them because they are alive, because he carved them a life in the wooded dystopia of a silent world. But his children so obviously need more than that.
Regan and Marcus have found each other. They manage to survive a brutal alien attack because of Regan. Her failed hearing aid has a high frequency that seems to drive the alien away. It’s obvious that she has the key to saving this family, but she is again denied that opportunity because her father refuses to see her as strong. He wants to be the hero.
This emotional crux of the story is also the most frustrating. Lee realizes his children are being hunted and tries to fight off the alien. He stares at his children long enough so they know what he is going to do. His bravery, after all, demands to be witnessed. Finally, he signs to his daughter, “I love you. I have always loved you.” And then he screams.
It is meant to be a moment of triumph for the father and the daughter: proof finally that her father loves her, that he approves of her. You can tell he thinks he has done enough, which is odd given the sentiment that his wife just shared — that they are nothing if they cannot protect them. But Lee sort of gives into this idea that the best thing he can do is die. Because how brave, how strong, how selfless.
In actuality, he plays up his own importance and this idea that hyper masculinity — this brute, illogical force — is salvation. Even the way he kills himself feels self-righteous: he doesn’t run off to save the children the sight of his death or give them more time to get away; he expects them to witness it, his final act. It is self-aggrandizing. There is no fight, only a battle cry: the act of importance without any bite behind it. He lets the monster kill him but does nothing to slow down the monster’s ability to kill his children, too. He is singularly focused on his own sacrifice, determined to prove his love and his courage and his goodness by being the man he thinks he’s meant to be — but he is not thinking of his kids, his family, this alien force that will still be there after its finished with him.
He dies believing in his cause. He believes his utopia carved out of this dystopia can survive this. The sole conversation he has with his wife starts with “it worked,” unaware of the irony as the castle crumbles around them. He does not know the house has flooded, does not realize there are multiple aliens hunting them and he has done nothing to stop them. He is sure that in his ultimate sacrifice, in his final scream, that he has proven his plan worked.
But it didn’t.
The children get away from their father’s massacre and race home to their mother. She witnessed her husband’s death on the security cameras set up in the basement. She saw him scream and fall. And it’s interesting, the instant change in energy. With the death of the father and the sudden relief from this patriarchal grip, the women finally step up.
Without the weight of sexism and expectation she is finally free to act — with the emotional intelligence and forethought her husband never had.
In a subtle yet distinctive shift, Evelyn does the unexpected: she hands off her newborn to the boy.
She had just given a speech on losing themselves to their children, but here she realizes her children need her — her strength, her wits, her emotional intelligence. She cannot just act blindly (and stupidly), throwing herself at the beast and thinking that is enough. To protect her children she must rely on herself.
It’s like a switch goes off. Gone are her maternal “instincts.” She has let go of this idea of the perfect idyllic wife. There is no laundry to do, no dinner to make. She cannot put on a sun dress and smile at her children as her husband makes the rules. Without the weight of sexism and expectation she is finally free to act — with the emotional intelligence and forethought her husband never had.
Cleverly, she hides the weakest away; the boy and the baby are tucked behind a wall. She does what her husband never did and allows Regan to explore the room, to finally be at ease with herself. She cannot hear, no, but she sees enough to start putting it together. In the quiet of her mind the grinds whir as she tries to find a solution.
Her father proved rage just won’t cut it.
Much has been made of the different tone this final scene takes. The rest of the film had been moody and distant, the characters mere caricatures in the silence. Here, there is a newfound energy. And it is here that the true metaphor of the film is realized.
In taking on these regressive gender politics, A Quiet Place has revealed the dangers in toxic masculinity and the adherence to gender norms.
With the absence of gendered expectations, characters are able to act out in complex ways. The mother figure, so soft and delicate and easily lost in her role, suddenly snaps to attention. She is all strength and hard lines, determined and motivated. There is emotion in her eyes, pride communicated as she works together with her daughter. They are able to work out that these aliens weakness, interestingly enough, is what was first perceived as their strength.
Evelyn, the family, even Lee himself — they all thought silence made them strong, that not talking about things kept them focused. Lee was so sure that his traditional lifestyle, his no-nonsense rules and the oppressive way he enforced them kept them safe. But it was his hyper-masculinity and his refusal to bend, to communicate, to think creatively, that was his undoing.
The monsters hunt by sound. But they are also undone by it. Regan, who cannot even hear what she is doing, thinks through it enough to see the obvious. And as she assaults the alien with different frequencies, her mother sheds the feminine frailty and finally acknowledges her own strength as she shoots the monster point blank.
It is a satisfying moment. And it’s contradictory to the way they’ve survived before. Silence was paramount in their world and she shatters it with a shotgun shot in the dark. Sure enough, security footage shows a slew of monsters racing towards the noise. But there isn’t the same panic as before.
Evelyn cannot collapse into a silent scream, playing the weakling who needs protecting, instructing, a man to look after her. With one steely look at her daughter, stubbornly ready too, she turns to the camera and cocks the gun.
It instantly cuts to black.
So much of the movie is spent emphasizing Lee’s quiet determination to save his family. It’s easy, then, to miss the subtle ways his choices affect the outcome. The movie does drive home a message of family and parenthood, but it is complicated by the gendered micro- and macroagressions at play. The roles these characters are meant to inhabit are for the most part prototypes of the traditional family unit. It is only in the absence of its hyper-masculine patriarch that the characters are finally able to breathe.
It would be easy to argue that Krasinski intended absolutely none of this. It’s easy to believe he thought the family message in the majority of the film was enough to make it meaningful. Nonetheless, in taking on these regressive gender politics, A Quiet Place has revealed the dangers in toxic masculinity and the adherence to gender norms. Every character in the film suffers in Lee’s reign. He is not malevolent; indeed, his way of caring is familiar, but that does not make it valuable. His insistence on silence, on tradition, on patriarchal allegiance fractured the family. His suicide, aggrandizing his supposed sacrifice, actually did nothing for them. It was a pointless death, driving home the message that ultra masculinity, the tough guy approach to screaming at things and thereby fixing things…does not actually work. The alpha male has no place in this world. The only way to survive is not merely to outlive, but out-think the creatures.
The finale of the film thus upends the original message of the film. Who are we if we cannot protect them? In the death of their patriarch, the women can finally explore the answer.