Who are we if we can’t protect them?

The title of this post comes from A Quiet Place, a civilisational collapse horror thriller currently winning critical acclaim for its deployment of silence to produce a film which is genuinely terrifying in a way few others are. It tells the story of a family struggling to survive, amidst the social collapse which has ensued from the arrival of murderous creatures prior to the start of the film. Blind and deadly, the creatures stalk the ruins of America, using their acute hearing to detect their pray before dispatching them with terrifying alacrity. The film takes place almost entirely without dialogue, as the family use sign language to communicate while they carve out a continued existence in spite of the desolation surrounding them.

It was starkly reminiscent of It Comes At Night, exhibiting the same preoccupation with domesticity after civilisation has collapsed. In this case, the eponymous creatures stalk the woods at night, transformed by an infection which has ravaged the world. Both films adopt a rural frame for their dramas, telling stories about sustaining existence on a remote farm or in the woods. Self-restraint takes on a ritualistic dimension in each. Through careful discipline, control and quarantine it becomes possible to ward off the dangers lurking beyond the confines of the house. Or rather that is what is hoped. Failures of restraint, or the inability of even the best laid plans to prepare oneself for contingencies, serve as crucial dramatic devices in both cases.

Both families are patriarchal, even if more warmly so in A Quiet Place. As well as the shared labour of family life, this father seeks to instruct his son in survival skills so he can protect his mother and sister. Away from the family, he tinkers with devices to better equip his children while systematically working through radio frequencies in the hope of finding some authority remaining somewhere who can help make things right. Befitting the near-millennial status of lead actor and director John Krasinski, the farm is wired with Home Alone-esque devices ingeniously crafted to facilitate the possibility of escape. If only we plan ahead, we can cope with what is to come. So we have been raised to believe.

The director and screenwriter of It Comes At Night, Trey Edward Shults, undoubtedly a millennial at 29, leaves me inclined to frame these films in generational terms. What can we find in the psyche of a generation which entered the adult world amidst the devastation of the financial crisis? By far the biggest threat in the films comes from the social order. Even the best prepared family can be undermined by the unpredictability of other people, interrupting domestic routines or neutralising careful preparation through their unexpected actions. Family life shrinks in both films, encompassing the nuclear family and their daily routines. Everything external to this enters in as threat and loss. A Quiet Place takes this to a disturbing extreme, with even life within the family presented as a threat to itself. A child playing with a toy, the everyday noise of a family and the birth of a child all become occasions to fear for one’s life. Still they soldier on, in a performance of stoicism tinged with an undercurrent of despair. They persist with surviving, investing their daily lives with the security of ritual and coping with the intrusions of dangers as effectively as they can.

These are bleak films and I’m fascinated by their bleakness. They reflect a retreat from the world, collective horizons giving way to the all encompassing embrace of family life. Beyond which lurk terrors which defy our comprehension and capacities. If we do what we should do, working hard to protect our families, we might find our way through the storm. A possibility which A Quiet Place tantalisingly and ambiguously hints at towards the end, adopting a change of key which I read as an ironic play on the audience’s expectations of resolution. The spectre of safety lingers on while misery, decay and death mount up within the once safe confines of the home. Yet we continue onwards, putting one foot in front of the other, working hard and putting our faith in the power of self-discipline and careful planning. This is the only way we have been taught to keep the terrors at bay. Yet we can no longer relying on it working. But who are we if we can’t protect them?

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