‘A Quiet Place Part II’ is (shhh!) a good enough sequel
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When “A Quiet Place” was released in 2018, its high-concept premise became a terrific word-of-mouth hook, if “word-of-mouth” makes sense for a film that demanded total silence from its characters and viewers alike. Here was a diabolically smart and scary thriller that turned sound itself into a weapon: a tour de force of shush-pense. It was a movie that cried out — OK, demanded in a whisper — to be seen on the big screen, provided you didn’t dare clear your throat, munch popcorn or uncrinkle that bag of Sour Patch Kids. Three years later, the hotly anticipated “A Quiet Place Part II” is before us, and it, too, is a movie to give you second thoughts about breathing too heavily in a theater — though not, of course, for entirely the same reasons.
Directed, like its predecessor, by John Krasinski (who also wrote the script, this time without his prior collaborators Bryan Woods and Scott Beck), “A Quiet Place Part II” was all set to open last March before COVID-19 shutdowns began. The release was delayed for more than a year, and as a result, one of the last movies some of my press colleagues saw in a theater in 2020 is one of the first movies I’ve seen in a theater in 2021. For anyone anxiously returning to the multiplex after a long absence, there are certainly less nerve-rattling cinematic options, though also less enjoyable ones. Sitting masked and vaccinated in an underpopulated screening room, I felt pretty safe and even contented as the lights went down, plunging me into a harrowing yet oddly comforting world of screaming adults, screeching monsters and buildings being torn asunder.
Those sounds — the last you’ll hear for a while, notwithstanding the dread-inducing shudders of Marco Beltrami’s score — accompany a tense opening flashback to the terrible day those monsters first arrived. In the first film, Krasinski kept his creatures off-screen for teasingly long stretches; this time, knowing we’ve already seen them in action, he unleashes them from the get-go. The calm of a small upstate New York town is shattered by the arrival of these fast-moving extraterrestrial demons with their Venus-flytrap teeth, armored bodies, lethal claws and suggestively gooey ear canals. Amid the unfolding chaos, Lee and Evelyn Abbott (real-life spouses Krasinski and Emily Blunt) narrowly escape with their children in a harrowing smash-and-slash action sequence that provides an early clue about the monsters’ extraordinary powers of hearing.
From there the story flashes forward to the triumphant final moments of the first “Quiet Place,” in which the surviving Abbotts realize the monsters’ greatest strength might in fact be their greatest weakness. And so begins this sequel proper, as the now-widowed Evelyn and her kids — Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe) and an unnamed newborn — venture uneasily beyond their upstate New York farmhouse, armed with guns and audio equipment: They’re literally amped for action. Still, they practically walk on tiptoe, their bare feet cracked and bandaged (a grimly persuasive touch), lest they rouse the monsters’ attention. But monsters aren’t all they have to fear in a world where evil — another word for it is indifference — often wears a disquietingly human face.
That’s an honest if obvious insight and a legitimate premise for a sequel, even if the execution here ultimately feels more prosaic than inspired. The strength of the first “Quiet Place” lay in its ruthless concentration and pared-to-the-bone storytelling: By turning every creak, crash and unstifled scream into a potentially fatal mistake, the movie cut the exposition to a minimum and kept its focus on the minutiae of the Abbotts’ moment-by-moment survival. Sure, some of it fell apart on closer inspection (a baby, in this economy?), but Krasinski was a deft enough storyteller to keep you fully in the moment with a canny mix of Spielbergian pathos and Hitchcockian concision.
The first film told us nothing about the aliens’ origins and, apart from its shivery prologue, “A Quiet Place Part II” tells us little more. What it gives us instead is a highly watchable, dramatically wobbly gloss on “War of the Worlds” that, for all its atmosphere and visual intricacy — well realized in Polly Morgan’s richly textured cinematography (shot on 35-millimeter film) and Jess Gonchor’s corpse-strewn, twisted-metal scenery — feels incomplete by design. Krasinski builds dread as capably as ever, sometimes with teasing, you-know-this-will-be-important-later details, sometimes by crosscutting showily between parallel threads, and always with an invaluable assist from Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl’s exquisitely chiseled soundscape. Inevitably, though, the relentless tension and close-quarters intimacy that he established in the first film can’t help but slacken under the weight of a swiftly expanding narrative.
Chalk it up to the growing pains of an accidental franchise: “Part II” feels caught between two conflicting modes, a tightly focused family drama and a more expansive vision of post-apocalyptic decay. (Presumably there will be more of the latter in the third “Quiet Place” movie, which will be written and directed by Jeff Nichols.) Still, this one does provide an effective end-of-days taster as fresh personalities and new battlegrounds are introduced. At key points we are ushered into the hidden enclaves where surviving remnants of humanity have retreated — one warm and inviting, the other not so much.
Stranded somewhere between the two is an old family friend, Emmett (a gravely haunted Cillian Murphy), who’s lost his own loved ones and offers the Abbotts temporary refuge in an abandoned steel factory. In this booby-trapped warehouse where clanging metal furnaces can become a shelter one minute and a trap the next, the characters begin a debate about their responsibility, if any, to connect with other survivors out there. While Regan insists that they must and believes that all is not lost, Emmett adopts a more isolationist stance: “The people that are left … they’re not worth saving,” he growls.
For those inclined to read political subtext into the “Quiet Place” movies — more than a few interpreted the first one as a right-wing allegory about white rural Americans pointedly robbed of their freedom of speech — Murphy’s performance as a shaggy, gun-toting libertarian hiding under the rubble of the Rust Belt will provide hot-take fodder aplenty. Within this clash of moral wills, Emmett is positioned, a bit too neatly, as an unworthy father figure next to that deceased paragon of virtue Lee Abbott — who, as Regan fiercely reminds everyone, never stopped fighting for humanity en route to his noble death.
If that seems a bit self-serving on Krasinski’s part — even from beyond the grave, he can’t resist varnishing his character’s heroism — he’s at least wise enough not to lose sight of this movie’s actual hero. It isn’t the brave survivor (an inexplicably underused Djimon Hounsou) who offers a useful counterweight to Emmett’s cynicism. Nor is it Evelyn or Marcus, though Blunt and especially young Jupe give their characters moments of death-defying courage this time around. No, the hero here is Regan, who — like Simmonds, the remarkable actress who plays her — is deaf, a condition that confers on her both an unshakable authority and a notable strategic advantage.
Regan is her enemies’ antithesis in every respect, not just because they can hear and she cannot, but because of the near-superhuman conviction with which she stands against them. Her mesmerizing presence sustains you through the unresolved final moments of “A Quiet Place Part II,” a viscerally effective endgame that nonetheless seems content to reiterate rather than build on its predecessor’s revelations. You’ll probably exhale in relief all the same. A killer hook is a killer hook, even if it registers, in this instance, as a somewhat muted echo.
‘A Quiet Place Part II’
In English and American Sign Language with English subtitles
Rated: PG-13, for terror, violence and bloody/disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Starts May 28 in general release where theaters are open
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