de facto film reviews 3 stars

John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place franchise has been one of the major breakout stories in the horror genre from the past decade. While Parts 1 and 2 came with varying degrees of success, audiences showed they were clearly willing to indulge in a vision of a post-apocalypse where the characters — and audiences in movie theaters — had no choice but to be as quiet as possible. The latest entry in the franchise, a prequel set on the first day of the alien invasion, sees director Michael Sarnoski, director of the somber and powerful drama Pig, taking over for Krasinski. The change in director is a clear change for the better as Sarnoski’s prequel far surpasses its predecessors, adding a significant amount of depth and melancholy amidst an alien invasion blockbuster.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Samira (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o) is a poet dying of cancer, living in hospice. After taking a trip with her nurse Reuben (Alex Wolff) and other patients into New York City, the city that never sleeps and never quiets down, their trip is spoiled by the invasion of vision-impaired, sound-sensitive aliens. After surviving the initial attack and with little to live for, Sam makes it her mission to return to her home in Harlem, feed her cat, aptly named Frodo, and to get one final slice of pizza. On her journey she meets Eric (Stranger Things‘ Joseph Quinn), a rattled Law School grad who sticks closely besides her in hopes of finding rescue and regaining his mental strength. Together, the two strangers come to rely on each other in order to survive and most importantly, stay quiet.

A prequel that actually tells a completely self-contained story, A Quiet Place: Day One is far from the crowd-pleasing sci-fi thriller you might be expecting, but rather a poignant and moody survival story set within the world created by John Krasinski and writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. Director Michael Sarnoski is more interested in evoking emotion and atmosphere rather than exploring new lore or furthering the franchise brand. Sarnoski’s film is more bold in its storytelling, utilizing silence and weaponizing the threat of sound in ways Krasinski never did. Whether it’s Sam having to open a can of cat food quietly or Eric having to control a panic attack in a sewer directly beneath a sleeping alien, the filmmaker comes up with new and inventive ways to maintain a constant state of paranoia.

The lingering threat of death hangs in the edges of most frames as cataclysmic destruction serves as the film’s background. Whereas the first two films — flashbacks notwithstanding — focused on life after the aliens invaded, Sarnoski gives the audience more to fear throughout the runtime as the sensitive-eared aliens have just come to Earth looking to kill everything in their path. The Pig filmmaker uses deliberate pacing to allow the audience to wallow in the melancholy of the surrounding apocalypse, focusing on how his characters emotionally grapple with their mortality. Keeping the focus on these two central characters, Sarnoski delivers an emotionally taxing, yet fulfilling character-driven genre film.

That said, the set pieces that are here are simply nail-biting. Sarnoski centers the action on the lengths his characters will go to in the face of survival, rather than indulging in empty spectacle. The sequences featuring the alien creatures are startling and rather brutal for a mainstream PG-13 release. The initial invasion sequence is haunting, evoking similar 9/11-type imagery to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds with survivors covered in ash and rubble. Sarnoski makes smaller moments tense with sequences staged over trying to open a door without making a sound, or avoiding stepping on glass. These scenes are equally as effective as the most elaborately-staged set pieces.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Sarnoski is able to center the film around its characters and their journey to survive, or rather search for what it means to discover something to live for. Placed firmly on the shoulders of his two central performers, Lupita Nyong’o and Joseph Quinn both give raw, empathetic performances. Nyong’o in particular delivers a performance far beyond what you would expect from a summer programmer. Having to deal with incredible physical pain due to her illness, Sam’s arc is a refreshingly human wrinkle in the typical sci-fi survival template as she’s aware of how long she has to live — she’s actually made peace with it — and seeks to live the rest of her days on her own accord. Nyong’o, no stranger to outstanding genre work as seen in Jordan Peele’s Us, is a gifted physical actor whose talents are put to exceptional work here. His eyes are deeply expressive, making the pain and anguish she conveys even more vivid.

Joseph Quinn’s Eric is a character of rich sadness, who sticks closely to Sam in hopes of not just surviving the apocalypse, but finding dignity in a life that hasn’t given him much. Eric is a loner suffering from excessive panic attacks and the realization that everyone and most everything he has ever cared for is wiped out, or at least facing the threat of being wiped away. The exchanges between Sam and Eric are rendered with a level of intimacy that is quite moving. The tense climax earns thrills and equal tears due in large part to the terrific character work from the actors and Sarnoski’s writing and directing. Given the franchise, it should come as no surprise just how terrific the sound design here is and how remarkably utilized it is. Sound is often an overlooked element to the craft of filmmaking and the Quiet Place films place that element front and center. Down to the echoing clicking noises made by the aliens, crunchy-sounding footsteps and the subtle movement of Frodo the Cat, the sound editing and design in Day One is its own achievement. Sarnoski is still working with the same dopey creature design, incredibly derivative of the Demogorgons from Strangers Things, which is more awkward given the addition of actor Joseph Quinn. Some scares are fairly easily plucked and feel like misplaced studio notes. One severely false jumpscare not only feels shoehorned into the film, but detracts from the powerful scene placed in front of it.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

A Quiet Place: Day One is a subversive, bleak and tense prequel. Lupita Nyong’o and Joseph Quinn give two heart-wrenching performances in a  bummer summer programmer that earns its emotions thanks to Sarnsoki’s attention to character mixed with his great handle of suspense.

A Quiet Place: Day One is now playing in theaters.