Watch: How 'A Quiet Place' Builds Suspense in Its Opening Minutes
Breaking down how the first eight minutes of 'A Quiet Place' introduce the world of the story, set the rules, and ratchet up the stakes.
One of 2018's breakout hits, John Krasinski's A Quiet Place is a tense and clever film that uses one of the key elements of filmmaking (in order to survive an invasion of aliens with ridiculously good hearing, a family must maintain almost total silence) as a central plot device. Audiences are accustomed to loud, extravagantly sound-designed sci-fi and horror films, and while the sound in A Quiet Place is no less intricate for being quiet, its use of silence makes it devilishly subtle.
The movie works inside of negative sonic space to play up the fact that when you can't make a sound, everything sounds like a bomb. In the below video from Thomas Flight, the film's opening minutes are broken down, showing how these two scenes set up the film that will follow while simultaneously building suspense and ratcheting up the stakes.
As Thomas notes, the film begins with a title card ("Day 89") that has become, in his words, "almost a trope in apocalypse films, so even the mere use of it here gives the audience some information," i.e., something bad went down a little less than three months ago. This, of course, sets up a question: what happened?
The first two shots, a close-up of a downed traffic light in the middle of the street and a longer view of a deserted town, provide some context. The event was catastrophic and destructive, yet no one has tried to rebuild, and by the evidence of abandoned cars on the street, there wasn't time to get away.
When we cut inside of the mostly looted pharmacy and meet the family, another key story point is established: the oldest daughter is hearing impaired. This provides the film with an occasional viewpoint for its sound design, as whenever Reagan is the focus, the "loud hum" she hears will overpower the rest of the noise in the scene. In the moments before Beau walks up with the rocket toy (which begins the clip below), we've already seen him drawing a rocket, and this provides context to what would otherwise be a contextless obsession with a noisy toy. It's a symbol of escape and we begin to sense that maybe rocketships (and outer space) have something to do with what's happening back on Earth.
It also motivates what happens next, upping the narrative intensity. The moment that opens the clip provides a bit of foreshadowing, while also setting up the tremendous danger that the noisy shuttle toy poses. Within the first few minutes of the film, a great deal of narrative ground has been covered. We've been introduced to the general situation, have met the family, and have established "some of the basic rules of the world," all presented in a fast-moving way that disguises all of the exposition inside of action.
The second part of the opening, set on the bridge, is all about "creating the first real moment of suspense...and setting the stakes high." Thomas notes that in a primarily suspense-driven film, there are two key ways of generating the desired effect.
The first, uncertainty, serves to provoke anxiety, while the second, certainty that an undesired outcome will occur, is often even more unbearable (see Hitchcock's "bomb theory" for more on this).
Certainty leads to the creation of dramatic irony, occurring in this film when, unbeknownst to the rest of the family, Beau retrieves the batteries that have been set aside. The audience knows that something bad (that is, loud) is going to happen while the characters do not. There's nothing terribly complicated about this, but it's very well done, and the following scene uses slow pacing to drag out the inevitable (while also establishing more of the story's world, such as the use of sand, as well as that the family lives a good distance from town).
The video is a great breakdown of the beginning of A Quiet Place, going into fairly granular detail about individual shots and the ways tiny details are woven together to make an effective, nerve-jangling whole. It's a good lesson for anyone interested in how filmmakers have to take a thousand moving parts and put them together into a cohesive and compelling world in just a few minutes time.
In this film's case, they do it without making a sound.