A Quiet Place (2018)

The production company Platinum Dunes’s recent trajectory is an illustrative microcosm of where mainstream horror filmmaking is currently situated in the 2010s. The Michael Bay-funded production brand got its start in horror in the early 2000s, buying up the rights to bankable intellectual properties like Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street and reshaping them into big budget Hollywood blockbusters, much to horror fans’ . . . horror. These passionless remakes, combined with that same era’s torture porn grime, painted a grim picture of where horror was going as a medium. Platinum Dunes made a sizable profit off a genre it only saw value in as a vehicle for making a sizable profit, but in the long-term found that exercise both creatively unfulfilling for themselves and alienating to the genre fans they were catering to (at least according to producer Brad Fuller in a recent interview with Shock Waves). Recently, they found much greater success by producing an original property helmed by a creative voice with a personal vested interest in seeing it done right. A Quiet Place has already made over $200mil on a $17mil budget without retracing the steps of a previous classic and without alienating the genre film fans that made it a success. Along with last year’s adaptation of IT, A Quiet Place’s overwhelming success indicates that although it’s possible to make a tidy profit off the horror audiences studios usually take for granted with thoughtless dreck, it’s even more rewarding to pay attention to the quality of the work instead of using the genre as an “Anything’ll do” placeholder. A Quiet Place is in many ways as a traditional mainstream horror with wide commercial appeal, but it’s an example of that medium done exceptionally well. It’s a shame Platinum Dunes and other well-funded production companies didn’t realize the financial potential for that balance back in the grim nu-metal days of the early 00s.

Although tracking A Quiet Place’s arrival through the trajectory of Platinum Dunes is illuminating in picking apart the status of the modern horror, the true auteurist voice behind the picture is The Office vet John Krasinski (another repeat Michael Bay collaborator). Like the producers behind the film, Krasinski admits to not typically being a fan of horror, but fell in love with the original script’s premise when presented an opportunity to play the lead role. Krasinski’s passion is exactly what was missing from the company’s early remakes of horror classics. He not only signed on to play the father figure at the center of the film’s dystopian creative feature nightmare, but also insisted on personally rewriting major elements of the screenplay, directing, and eventually casting his own wife (consistently impressive badass Emily Blunt) as his co-lead. This isn’t exactly the mainstream horror flick equivalent of John Cassavetes putting his own family through hell in projects like A Woman Under the Influence, but Krasinski does make this mainstream genre flick feel surprisingly personal. It’s easy to detect what drew him to the project. A real-life father, Krasinski turns this high-concept monster movie into an expression of fatherly anxiety over the traditionally macho concerns of serving as protector over a vulnerable wife & children. It’s a remarkably Conservative (and rigidly gendered) way of depicting a family-in-crisis dynamic (Michael Bay is involved, after all), but one that’s self-reflective & repeatedly challenged as it falls apart in the face of impending doom. Although each character in A Quiet Place’s drastically limited cast gets their share of the spotlight and their own internal conflicts, the film overall feels like a solid Dad Horror movie, a nice compliment to all the great Mom Horrors of recent years: The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc. The trick is that even if these macho protector anxieties are as personal to Krasinski as they were to Trey Edward Schults in the superficially similar It Comes at Night, the Platinum Dunes commitment to commercial appeal makes sure they don’t distract the movie from delivering the traditional horror genre goods. It’s one of those rare instances where the personal & the commercial reach a wonderfully harmonious equilibrium, true movie magic.

The surprise of A Quiet Place’s commercial success is neither Platinum Dunes finding a second chance on the horror media landscape nor how personal Krasinski made the project feel. It’s that a largely silent, subtitled monster movie was able to appeal to such a wide audience. In the not-so-distant future, a species of blind, bug-like creatures with an exceptional sense of hearing has seemingly wiped out the majority of the human race. This isn’t explained in an opening text crawl or expositional dialogue, but rather the block letters of newspaper headlines that were used for similar information dumps in 1950s sci-fi B-pictures. A small family carefully maneuvers through this environment, speaking only subtitled sign language and tiptoeing barefoot in avoidance of the aggressive monster-bugs that will destroy them if they make a single peep. This delicately quiet environment sometimes makes for a distracting theatrical experience (I was very aware of the rest of the audience and the sounds of Avengers: Infinity War bleeding over through the walls), but it also sets the mood for an excellent jump scare environment. Loud noises and sudden monster attacks are heart-stopping in their intense clash with the near-silent atmosphere they erupt from. It also helps that the monsters themselves are impeccably designed (appearing to be a gumbo of details borrowed from Alien, Cloverfield, and Starship Troopers), with features that only become more interesting as their onscreen exposure increases late in the runtime. The “If they hear you, they hunt you” gimmick is a fantastic starting place for a horror film, but given general audiences’ aversion to subtitled dialogue and impatience with quiet builds (that were a few compulsive cellphone-checkers in my own audience) it’s amazing that the film could make its world so instantly accessible to so many people. It’s probably the closest a largely silent feature film has had to wild commercial appeal since the Oscar-winning comedy-drama The Artist nearly a decade ago.

While the wonderfully tense creature feature atmosphere is what got butts in the seats, it’s Krasinski’s commitment to the film’s familial drama that affords it a lasting effect. This is the story of a flailing father figure struggling to maintain traditional family values (with prayer before meals, clearly defined gender roles for his children, the whole deal) in a world thrown into chaos by hearing-sensitive monsters. Early on, when he’s shown surveying his farmland dominion from atop a silo while his wife preps a nursery for their unborn baby inside, the movie feels like a North-Western survivalist power fantasy where the bearded flannel men of Instagram can daydream about their macho roles as Protector after the inevitable downfall of society. The subversion of this Doomsday Prepper fantasy is much subtler than the critique that drives 10 Cloverfield Lane, but the initial rustic Pinterest calm is thoroughly disrupted by the film’s chaotically violent conclusion. The first cracks in his macho armor are presented by his deaf teen daughter (Wonderstruck’s Millicent Simmons, whom Krasinski smartly insisted on casting over hearing-abled actors), who is vehemently frustrated with the traditionally femme domestic roles he attempts to force on her. This is matched by her perpetually petrified brother’s reluctance to being trained as a hunter-gatherer future-Dad. What’s even worse is the father’s failure to protect his wife & kids form the monsters invading their idyllic Norman Rockwell homestead. When his wife asks, “Who are we if we cannot protect them?” you can see Krasinski slipping into an existential Conservative Dad crisis both in front of and behind the camera. For all A Quiet Place’s merits as an adventurous, high-concept creature feature with wide commercial appeal, it’s that protective paternal anxiety, especially skewed towards Macho Dads, that makes the film feel like a substantial work. Disregarding Platinum Dunes’s shaky reputation within the horror community and Cinema Sins-style logic sticklers’ nitpicky complaints about its premise & exposition, it’s remarkable how much personality & genuine familial tension Krasinski was able to infuse into this genre film blockbuster; it’s the most distinctive film to bear Michael Bay’s name since Pain & Gain.

-Brandon Ledet

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)

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three star

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In the most basic sense The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a sequel that no one was clamoring for. Even the star of Snow White & The Huntsman, my beloved Kristen Stewart, declined to return for this second installment of a franchise practically no one loves. This film’s lack of critical hype or a vocal fandom was a little isolating for me, since I was actually a fairly solid fan of the much forgotten original film. As a low-key fantasy epic that called back to mid-80s productions like LegendLabyrinth, and Ladyhawke, I found Snow White & The Huntsman to be a mostly satisfying experience. What really stood out, though, was the film’s visual flourishes, which bathed a wicked queen played by Charlize Theron in a milky white porcelain & transformed the evil mirror of Snow White folklore into a menacing humanoid made of dripping gold. In this way The Huntsman: Winter’s War could be understood as being simply more of the same. Anyone who brushed off Snow White & The Huntsman as a dull trifle (most people, I’m assuming) isn’t going to be won over or blown away by what they find in Winter’s War. However, fans of the original’s familiar fantasy realm setting & surprising knack for striking visuals in its villainy are likely to be pleased by the franchise’s years-late return. I was, anyway.

A ludicrously belabored, heavy-handed prologue narrated by Liam Neeson asks the question “What does a mirror show you? What do you see?” The answer is clips from Snow White & The Huntsman, apparently. It’s probably not a good sign that this late in the game follow-up feels the need to remind its audience that it’s not an original property, but I found myself entertained by the film’s strained way of setting up its own Kristen Stewart-free narrative. The prologue is so long & unwieldy that it feels as if Neeson is reading a decades-spanning bedtime story, which is far from the worst effect for a fairy tale, all things considered. By the time the setup is over with, Winter’s War simultaneously functions as a prequel and a sequel, retroactively introducing new characters into its already-established mythology so that it has a place to go in Snow White’s absence. I’m not sure knowing the exact plot of this film’s silly middle ground between Lord of the Rings & Game of Thrones is all that necessary for you to understand what you’re getting into. Winter’s War more or less boils down to a CG action adventure about opposing kingdoms’ quest to obtain & command the evil mirror of the first film, which looks like some kind of all-powerful golden gong. It just so happens that the monarchs of those kingdoms are both badass women.

Besides its undeniable knack for visual effects, Winter’s War mostly finds entertainment value in the strength of its casting. Charlize Theron returns as the golden evil queen of the first film, but this time she’s joined by a (somehow previously unmentioned) sister, played by Emily Blunt (hot off the heels of her roles in Sicario & Edge of Tomorrow). Here, Blunt plays a CG-aided Ice Queen who staffs her tundra-set fortress of solitude with a ferocious army of children she raises to be loveless killers. She trains these tiny tyke murderers to believe that “Love is a lie. It is a trick,” establishing her sole governing rule to be “Do not love. It’s a sin. I will not forgive it.” And, wouldn’t you know it, two of her miniature killing machines grow up to fall in love. One of them is America’s hunky but dim foreigner boyfriend Chris Hemsworth, returning from the first film, and he’s romantically paired with Fellow Beautiful Person Jessica Chastain. The two leads essentially live out a feature-length version of the ridiculous fight-flirting scene from Daredevil, interspersed with their attempts to thwart two evil queens from gaining the ultimate power represented in the mirror by destroying a litany of faceless foot soldiers with their gorgeous weaponry of golden liquids & CG ice shards. Edgar Wright’s pet doofus Nick Frost returns as a CG dwarf to offer some comic relief, but the less I say about that the better.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War boasts three badass women as its leads along with stunningly gorgeous costumes & visual effects, but is hopelessly saddled with goofy everything else. For every brilliant idea in its visual play (like a white porcelain version of the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans), there’s something equally silly waiting to drag down its artistic clout (like an early scene that depicts the most blatantly overwrought “You thought this was just a game?” chess match metaphor I’ve ever seen in my life). I might be the only person in the world who regrets not seeing this ridiculous display play out on the big screen, but I do believe with a little push in a more extreme direction, either towards more over-the-top camp in the performances or some R-rated gore in its fantasy violence, this film & its predecessor could have serious cult following potential. As is, you have to appreciate them for their low-key fantasy realm charm, the absurdity of their surprisingly game cast, and the perfume commercial menace of their imagery to buy what they’re selling. Personally, I’m a sucker for all three.

-Brandon Ledet

Sicario (2015)

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One of the initial reasons I wanted to check out Sicario while it was still in the theaters was that during the film’s early press a lot was made about the fact that Emily Blunt’s protagonist was almost replaced with a male lead due to pressure from nervous producers, presumably because they believed that alteration would sell more tickets. I caught a clip of Blunt promoting the film on Stephen Colbert’s talk show where she quoted a producer as saying “If you make her a dude, we’ll up the budget,” a fucked up sentiment the actress backed up with, “Welcome to Hollywood.” This gross line of thinking gets more & more outdated every year, especially when you consider the recent success of female-led action properties like The Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road, Divergent, Lucy, and the list goes on. Hell, even Blunt herself outshone Tom Frickin’ Cruise with her action star prowess in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. I initially had very little interest in Sicario based on its trailers, due to its drug cartel-busting subject matter & the promise of a relentlessly bleak tone, but I resented the idea that the film’s lead was once potentially going to be genderswapped to supposedly make more money. I resented it so much that I decided to support the film while it was still in the theater in the simple act of buying a ticket.

It turns out that the film is actually pretty good. I don’t have any particular fascination with the subject of drug cartels & border control outside of what I read about it in the news, so I’d usually be much more likely to seek out a trashier, goofier take on the topic like, say, the recent, grotesque Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage. Sicario is a lot more realistic than that ugly affair, following a multi-agency operation (mostly between the FBI & the DOJ) that seeks to shake up the status quo of typical drug raid protocol in an attempt to dethrone a couple of kingpin brothers wreaking havoc in Phoenix, AZ & Juárez, Mexico. The “war on drugs” becomes quite literal as Blunt’s law-abiding SWAT member goes on a Training Day-style tour of how much more effective it is for drug enforcement agents to break the rules entirely. In an attempt to get a leg up in an ongoing power struggle, the United States government essentially becomes a well-funded rival cartel, resorting to acts of kidnapping, torture, and assassination to get the results that the by-the-books drug raids simply aren’t. When Blunt’s protagonist pleads “What the fuck are we doing?” & “I’m not a soldier,” in protest of their far from legal war tactics, her helplessness as a pawn in the shakeup is alarming. Questionable authority figures played by Benicio del Toro & Josh Brolin intentionally keep her in the dark as they put her life in danger & overtly manipulate her into participating in human rights violations. At one point del Toro snarls, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we do. But in the end, you will understand.” That last part may be true, but understanding is not the same as approving.

What Sicario does best is establishing a claustrophobic threat of violence. Early in the film a shootout in a tiny drug house reveals walls lined with dozens of corpses. Bombs go off unexpectedly. Dismembered bodies are strung under overpasses as warnings. Shootouts in traffic jams & underground tunnels cramp the audience into inescapable spaces riddled with gunfire. A tense, ominous soundtrack makes visual cues like night vision, Western landscapes, and blood running thin in shower water look impossibly alien. Much like how the recent Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass gets by purely on the strength of its acting, Sicario might be a mostly predictable film in terms of narrative, but it creates such a violent, foreboding atmosphere, that some scenes make you want to step out in the lobby for a breath of fresh air (or to puke, as the cops who discovered the early scenes’ in-the-wall corpses couldn’t help doing).

One thing’s for sure: no matter what your mileage with a serious action film centered on US/Mexican border drug cartels may be in general, Sicario would not have been at all improved by replacing Emily Blunt’s character with a male lead, no matter what a scumbag Hollywood producer would like you to believe. The few supporting roles played by men within the film are pitch perfect, especially in small character details like the way Josh Brolin turns the simple acts of whistling & chewing gum into unbearable grotesqueries or in Benicio del Toro’s delivery of cinema’s all-time most violent wet willy (that’s one for the ages, right there), but it’s Blunt’s performance that provides the film with the bulk of its pathos. Sicario is a fine film, but Blunt is a damn fine actor. It’s a testament to the characters of Sicario‘s director & writer, Denis Villeneuve & Taylor Sheridan, that they stuck with Blunt & didn’t opt for that promise of a bigger budget. The results were certainly worthwhile & hopefully it’ll help lead to idiotic propositions like that dying away forever.

-Brandon Ledet