For Karis, who has always been for me a quiet place
There is a pivotal scene in the first act of director John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) that may get overlooked for all the jump scares and horror that occurs later. Nevertheless, it is this subtle shot that lingers with me.
It is a scene of a father and a son sitting by a stream in a postapocalyptic world where sound has become destructive and de-creational, the antithesis of what God designed noise and, more specifically, language to be in the Garden. Language was intended to be a humanizing force, one of the distinguishing marks of man from beast. Thus, when humans are robbed of language it likewise signifies a loss of humanity, a distortion of the imago dei.
However, in the scene I am referring to, after fifteen minutes where the only noise was one that brought destruction, and, by extension, the death of the youngest son in the family, there is noise again and, in particular, language. While the Abbott family has had to adapt their form of communication to the nightmarish silence around them (they use ASL, or American Sign Language, for reasons that will become clear later), the father, Lee Abbott (John Krasinski), is able to have his first conversation in months with his son, Marcus Abbott (Noah Jupe). The subject of their discussion? Lee’s disabled daughter and whether or not he still loves her.
A Quiet Place is situated in a fallen world that is cursed by any kind of sound. It resonates with me because the emotional core of the movie is a father struggling to know his daughter without language and seeking to communicate love to her without the privilege of words. This is the arrangement I find myself in with my terminally ill daughter.
The film opens with the mother, Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt), looking for medicine for her oldest son, which is indicative of the entire film’s recurring motif of seeking a cure. They are in a derelict town, in a dilapidated pharmacy when the youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward) discovers a toy rocket. Excited, Beau runs to his sister Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and signs, “Rocket will save us!” The rocket represents man’s Tower of Babel (cf. Gen. 11) and his self-made efforts at building a ladder to God, an over reliance on technology as savior. In much the same way, with my daughter’s disease, I have often felt like my desire for enzyme replacement has been analogous to trusting in a rocket.
Although ostensibly an innocuous child’s plaything, in a world where sound attracts monsters, the rocket provides an early source of tension and example of foreshadowing as Lee must intervene and remove the batteries from the toy, reminding his youngest son of the danger in that it will be too loud. In understanding of the boy’s childlike wonder and perhaps due to her disability inhibiting her from recognizing the gravity of the threat, Regan returns the rocket to the boy. As a deaf and mute girl, Regan is simultaneously the most powerful and vulnerable character in the film. She is at once robbed of her voice and thus of a potential weakness that handicaps others to the predators of the film, and she is defenseless from perceiving when a threat is nearby. Her condition is both blessing and curse. Similarly, my understanding of Karis’s condition has expanded. Despite wanting her to be whole and able to speak and move, I have developed a perspective on it in that she has an experience with the world that must result in a more complex inner life and internal quietude than those of us who are not disabled would ever have. Perhaps I am rationalizing loss. Or could it be there is a redemptive element even in the eroding effects of Adam’s curse?
Regan though is dichotomous; she is characterized by both healing and suffering. Additionally, in a film that is replete with men both being dethroned and conquering as little kings, she is a female who is searching for identity and Edenic rule as she processes past trauma. She longs for the love of her father in a broken world and her signing is a visible word, a concrete depiction of grace. She is the church.
After leaving the pharmacy, the Abbotts journey up the road in a landscape where even the birds are silent. Once they have crossed the bridge, the rocket blares. In a moment of metaphoric significance with the bridge acting as an image of both the family continuing through the world while the youngest son is left to exit the world through death and as a symbol of connection to the rest of the narrative that will follow, a helpless Lee dashes towards Beau but is unable to prevent his son from being killed by a monster. Unlike the sprinting John Krasinski though, there is a savior efficacious in his efforts to deliver his people. Nevertheless, for Lee and the Abbotts, the attempt was a failed one.
The family is now broken. The bridge is now figurative for it shows the disconnect between the world that should be and the world that is. They have finally been completely severed from the world they once knew; it no longer exists.
The realm the Abbotts must enter is a postapocalyptic one in which there is not so much a scarcity of resources as a scarcity of sound. Throughout the film, a quiet place will paradoxically act as both a heaven and hell for the characters. In a creational and redemptive sense, a quiet place is a location of rest and blessing, but it has become a place of toil and cursing.
The demarcation of days as a structural device for the movie acts as a kind of oblique allusion to Genesis and the creation account, only here it works more as an undoing of the works of creation. Humanity, as far as we know, has been reduced to one family again, and it is a family that must live in fear and seclusion. While the family is dysfunctional given the fragmented and grieving nature of their existence, they still operate out of a desire to fulfill the creational mandate of Genesis 1:28. Although he may be obsessed with deciphering the origin of the monsters that now inhabit the globe and with identifying their weaknesses (the room where he has hoarded newspaper clippings and scrawled hasty notes to himself as well as stockpiled radio equipment tell a narrative), Lee is still acting out of a kingly desire to protect his children, a function given to all fathers since Adam. He wants to avoid a repeat of the previous tragedy, a kind of doomsday prepping for a doomsday that has already occurred. And it is in these kinds of double meanings that the film is thematically nuanced and layered. There are really two traumas, two tragedies, the macrocosmic and the microcosmic: the end of the world in the loss of most of mankind and the end of their world in the loss of their son. Nonetheless, what happens to the family is what happens to the world, what happens to the Abbotts is what happens to society.
Although there is a tragic pall cast over the early occurrences of the film as we see the family processing their grief, whether it is through a father looking at pictures of his deceased son from an isolated perch atop a grain silo or a wordless expression of grace over a meal or a silent game of Monopoly, these individuals are trying to foster community in a broken world. In many ways, are we much different? And no matter how much has degenerated, prayer continues. The quiet will not take away the language of prayer.
Thus, the world is not fully dehumanized, the image of God has not been obliterated. More than that, there are signs of redemption as Evelyn is pregnant, which is both a callback to the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 and a point of tension as we anticipate the dangers of childbirth in a noiseless world. Central to the first proclamation of the gospel though is the enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, so conflict and violence is indispensable to the work of renewal and recreation.
However, both the imagery of promise in Evelyn’s pregnancy and the normality in the household is soon disrupted by something as harmless seeming as a lantern being accidentally knocked over. Poetically, the mistake that causes a fire reminds the audience of the danger that lurks in the darkness.
Equilibrium is regained for a moment, and we discover that, alongside the frenetic monster researching Lee has been doing, he has been building a cochlear implant for Regan. Even in a state of destruction, he seeks to rebuild the creation that has been shattered. Thematically then, the scene fades to black with Lee and Evelyn sharing a marital dance and enjoying music through the protection of trading earphones, because humans must live and not just survive.
Through all the routines and rituals we have seen the characters trying to establish, perhaps as a way to cope with their sorrow, we are able to see that they are trying to create their Garden; they are trying to find their quiet place. As Regan goes downstairs to where one of those many quiet places will be, her father pulls her out of the threshold and takes her outside where he signs to her not to go down there. She protests that she won’t make a sound. Lee bends down and shows her one of the implants he has been working on for her. In a scene that conveys the fractured state of their current father-daughter relationship, Regan signs with terseness, “It. Won’t. Work. It. Never. Works. Stop. Just. Stop.” In actuality, his daughter’s frustration over the cochlear implants fails to disguise a deeper frustration she has with there seeming to be no salvation from their damnation as well as from her false guilt over the death of her younger brother.
Alternately, Evelyn continues to try to foster a sense of community and family in a dysfunctional world as she homeschools Marcus in what would seem to be an act of futility. When the mother attempts to sooth Marcus’s fears about going with his father, the irony is inescapable when she says, “You will be fine. Your father will always protect you. Always.” After injecting some levity in their dialogue, Evelyn reminds Marcus that his father just wants him to be able to take of himself and be able to take care of her when she is old. Men who are seeking to be kings in a kingdom that is not fully under their domain.
Continuing to be reluctant to go with his father, Marcus challenges his father’s platitude that there is nothing to be scared of. “Of course there is” is the son’s reply. Cliches will not comfort in time of suffering. The world is a fearful place, but the task is to try to thrive in it by confronting risk and reality. When Karis was diagnosed with Krabbe, I often numbed myself to the fact that my daughter had a fatal disease with entertainment and food. It may have given me a faux sense of security, but it didn’t allow me to inhabit my distressing emotions. Even now, it requires a wealth of emotional honesty to concede that.
Ironically, Marcus doesn’t want to assume manhood, but Regan asks to take on the role of co-adventurer. It is more about the daughter testing her father to see if he trusts her after the incident with her brother. Without intuiting her request, Lee tells her that she needs to stay with her mother.
Alongside father and son at the river again, we hear the growl of the waters that is more ferocious than the growl of the monsters. The meaning is as transparent as the river they talk beside: water is redemptive and language is redemptive. Initially, Marcus had feared that the sound of a flipping fish would alert the nearby menaces. However, the father teaches him an important lesson: as long as there is a louder sound, the family is safe. Moreover, Lee climbs to a waterfall and shouts from inside of it. Speaking has returned.
“You’re safe. You’re safe. I promise,” the father says. It is only then that the son believes him and shouts with joy.
Cutting back to the house, Evelyn is carrying a bag up the stairs from the basement and loosens a nail, which portends a threat that is to come and lurks in our minds over the next several scenes. It is inevitable. We know that nail will return.
While resting by the creek and carrying on the conversation mentioned in the opening of my article, Marcus asks his father, “Why didn’t you let her come? Do blame her for what happened?”
The film cuts to Regan returning the bridge and to a small collection of toys and a cross that has been placed where her younger brother was killed. She cuts the wire to the rocket and places it alongside the rummage.
The scene shifts back to the river. “No,” the father says.
“Because she blames herself,” says Marcus, with more social awareness than most children.
“You still love her, don’t you?” asks the son.
“Of course I do,” says the father.
“You should tell her.”
Among many moments in this film that reverberated with me, this scene shook me as I recalled all the times that I missed to tell Karis how much I love her. Although I did tell her, it will never feel that I said it enough. You cannot exhaust the ways to tell your daughter you love her. The obstacle for me was knowing how to do it without words. As a writer and an English teacher, it seemed a cosmic and miserable irony that I would not be able to relate to her with language. Now, as a divorced dad, circumstances increase the difficulty of communicating my love to her.
Walking back from the river, Lee and Marcus encounter a man who has a firsthand experience with grief and makes a suicidal shout. This noise is the catalyst which propels the narrative into the second and third act. It also illustrates the symbolic echo and ripple effect of responses and actions in this world as Evelyn’s water breaks, escalating the tension. Rushing to her quiet place, it is telling that she trips over the nail and the blood and water flow, which both symbolize purification and judgment. The two are inseparable as Christ was judged for our purification. The monster that pursues her comes into clear view for the first time and it is ironic that its face resembles that of an ear. Reaching for the lights to signal her husband, Evelyn conveys to him that he needs to return posthaste. Upon arriving at the property, Lee tells Marcus to overcome his hesitancy and go make a rocket, which is a kind of shibboleth for this family and a reference back to the youngest son’s deus ex machina belief that they would be brought out of this nightmarish world.
Marcus succeeds in setting off fireworks concomitant with Evelyn’s screams of childbirth and Lee’s arrival to dispatch of the monsters with his shotgun. Misdirected by a bloodstained bathtub, the audience is relieved when the mother is discovered in the shower with the baby already birthed. He is the new Adam.
Lee carries Evelyn and the baby to their prearranged hideout, a quiet place he has created beneath the floor with a mattress roof where he places an oxygen mask on the baby and sets it in a box that has an eerie resemblance to a coffin. He must muffle the newborn’s cries.
Meanwhile, a monster leers behind Regan, who, of course, is unable to detect its presence. Some kind of interference in her ear causes the monster to recoil and retreat though.
After a dream sequence which is more flashback where Evelyn sees her youngest son dying all over again, she immediately awakens to question the safety of her other children. She is a queen in an upside down kingdom, acting as a benevolent ruler of her offspring and co-ruler with her husband. When Lee calms her by reminding them that they had a plan they rehearsed with their children, Evelyn says, “It’s a boy.”
“It’s a boy,” Lee repeats. This is metaphoric of how it is both regenerative and renewing of the son they lost not in that any child can be replaced but that another male was gained. When Kales was born, I was overjoyed to have another daughter, and it was significant that it was a girl. I did not believe that she could be a substitute for Karis; nevertheless, there is solace that comes from having another daughter. Furthermore, the birth of a son is of redemptive import; it is an unmistakable allusion to Christ.
In a clever transition and wordplay, Evelyn says, “I could have carried him. He was so heavy.” For a moment, we think she is still referring to the newborn but she is not. She is engaging in self-blame and false guilt over the death of her youngest as her following comments reveal. “I can still feel the weight of him in my arms. And my hands were free. I was carrying him but my hands were free.”
“You have to stop,” Lee says, indicating they have had this discussion before.
“So I could have carried him. I should have carried him.”
I recall having similar self-blame and false guilt after learning of my daughter’s diagnosis. Circulating through the rolodex of my memories, my mind retrieves the day that we went to the geneticist to learn of Karis’s diagnosis. I told the mother that it was my fault. After all, I had given my daughter a mutated gene (nevermind that Krabbe Leukodystrophy is autosomal recessive and both parents must be carriers and contributors in order for the child to have the disease). Figuratively, Evelyn has been carrying the burden of her child’s death while literally bearing a new child into the world. She has been pregnant with misplaced remorse. Thus, again we have a paradox where the pregnancy is creative and destructive.
Covered by a red blanket, the redemptive imagery reemerges. After obsessing over how she should have carried her youngest son, Evelyn asks the central, dramatic question of the film, “Who are we if we can’t protect them?” The exact question is a ghost that has yet to be exhumed from my own psychological house, not only when it comes to Karis but when it comes to all three of my children. I suppose we can teach them, and we can pray for them; it is a worthwhile caveat though that we should avoid sheltering them, parentifying them, or hijacking them of their own need to simulate risk and fail.
As Lee leaves the quiet place to go look for Regan and Marcus, water begins to flood the room, the recurrent symbol of purification and judgment. While Marcus appeals to Regan atop the grain silo and assures her that their father will come for them, she shakes her head in disbelief. “He’ll come for you,” Regan signs with emphasis on “you.” The difference is that the father has spoken to Marcus and earned his trust, but he has not spoken to his daughter.
Relapsing into chaos, the quiet place Lee built for Evelyn is now completely flooded and their son floats along in an ambiguous state between being more Moses or second Moses, signifying more death through law or life through grace. Disorder spreads as Marcus and Regan fall into the grain silo and their mutual efforts to save each other are self-defeating.
Eventually reuniting with Marcus and Regan, Lee’s reconciliation is short-lived as he directs them to hide while he is injured by one of the monsters. It is in this climactic scene where the earlier tragic foreshadowing of the youngest son’s wishes find fulfillment as Lee is the rocket, a Christ figure, who makes a louder noise to ensure his child’s safety. In one of the most poignant and emotionally resonant scenes I have witnessed that is the most concrete, cinematic image of the love of Christ for his people, Lee, who is pierced in his side with a wound like our savior’s, evoking the picture of a bleeding Jesus, (it is a bearded John Krasinski no less), signs to his daughter, in her own language, saying, “I love you. I have always loved you” and then screams a scream of sacrifice.
In similar fashion, our Lord on the cross communicated his love to us in word and action when he cried, “It is finished.” The Son of God made a bigger sound than the cacophony of our sin that attracts divine judgment. Jesus went to the quiet place so that we could live in a world of sound; he made a loud noise, so we could have the silence of grace.
In the aftermath of Lee’s death and the family’s rescue, Regan goes down and sees the real reason why she was not allowed to visit the basement: all over the desk are her father’s attempts at perfecting the cochlear implant. Even with all of the destruction, he never abandoned the work of repairing creation and healing her ear. She cries a single, quiet tear.
What is more is that the father continues to protect his children after his death. He is not just the rocket who makes a louder noise to ensure their escape, but he also is the rocket who launches them into the new world of safety. As it happens, the device that was intended to restore Regan’s healing is the sole mechanism that will destroy the monsters. Healing comes in unusual ways.
When I visited Karis on my birthday, she opened her eyes. This is a rarity for children with Early Infantile Krabbe as the demyelinating effects do nerve damage to even the eyelids. However, I was talking to her, and she looked at me. I said, “I love you, Karis.”
I like to think there was some belief there.