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A Quiet Place: studies in guilt and headship

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A Quiet Place: studies in guilt and headship |

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***This review contains spoilers.***

Aliens better not ever invade Earth. Sure, we’ve got billions of tasty humans and a crippling sense of guilt telling us that if we get snacked on by creepy spider monsters, it’d be no more than we deserve. But then, we’ve also got Emily Blunt. In The Edge of Tomorrow, she fought them with exosuits and a helicopter rotor. In A Quiet Place she fights them with a shotgun and a hearing aid. Either way, she’s nobody you want to mess with.

If you’ve been following the reviews, you know that A Quiet Place is a tense and terrifying suspense thriller about a close-knit family trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world roamed by vicious alien monsters that hunt by sound. Walking on sand, conversing in sign language, and playing Monopoly with bits of felt so as not to attract the attention of these lightning-fast predators, the family has become a lonely light of civilisation in a world that’s going dark. The father (played by director John Krasinski) farms by day and solders together hearing aids for his deaf daughter by night. The mother (played by Krasinski’s real-life wife Emily Blunt) homeschools the children and tries to provide them with the illusion of a safe, peaceful childhood while preparing a soundproof cradle for the baby she’s carrying. Apart from the unremitting suspense and a few quick shots of violence, A Quiet Place has little or no objectionable content and delivers a strong, positive image of Christian family life.

But that was only one of the reasons I enjoyed this movie. Best of all, it made me think.

Several years ago, I read E. Michael Jones’s book Monsters from the Id. In this book, Jones discusses the horror genre from a Christian perspective, arguing that horror is the re-emergence of a repressed moral order. Jones argues that the mass popularity of horror is the symptom of a culture which has been violently traumatised by the wages of sin. The trauma must be somehow expressed, but the culture is not ready to repent of the lusts and bad philosophy that brought about this trauma in the first place. So, catharsis is sought in the highly ambivalent horror genre. In horror, monsters represent something the culture is unwilling to acknowledge about the moral order. In the Oedipus myth of Greek mythology, for instance, Oedipus as a baby is exposed to die. He then comes back and, owing to no fault of their own, his parents suffer death and incest at his equally innocent hands. The horrible things that happen to Oedipus and his family are divorced from any moral order. There is no explanation for why the bad things happen, no judgement for the past sin of infanticide.

For the unrepentant, it is better to be preyed upon by something you do not understand, than to neuter the monster by facing and confessing your own guilt.

Granted, if Jones’s assessment of horror is correct, and the genre is designed to express cultural trauma while repressing cultural guilt, then we come up with the same problem of interpretation as Freudian psychology: if something isn’t visible on the surface, then how do we know we aren’t reading all sorts of crazy things into the story? Well, we know that because Romans 1:18 assures us that there is indeed a widespread cultural repression of truth which extends to the guilt we feel collectively as a culture for defying God’s law: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Given this truth of human nature, it’s evident that many cultural works, especially horror stories, are surely attempts to suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

You might still accuse me of reading into this film, if A Quiet Place wasn’t so explicit about the fact that is is, in fact, all about guilt. In an early scene, the cooperative neglect of all the family members results in the death of one of the children. The death soon becomes a major source of guilt for most of the characters. “Who are we if we can’t protect them?” the mother worries.

Hmm, I wonder what staunchly-denied guilt and trauma we as a culture have incurred by way of not protecting children? A Quiet Place beckons its viewers to identify with the wholesome family life of the protagonists. Of course, the parents’ sacrificial love for their children, their idealized courage and perseverance in the midst of disaster, the fact that in the face of the apocalypse the mother still chooses to carry and bear another child, are all positive things. I’m not being cynical about the characters in the film, but I’m deeply cynical about the culture that chose to tell this specific story, and then reward it with enormous success. This story is being told in a world where thousands of children are ritually slaughtered in the name of convenience, in a culture where many post-abortive women bear an “atonement” child to replace the child they killed. Does A Quiet Place try to salve this guilt by suggesting to its audience that if they were stuck in an alien apocalypse, they would respond with the same heroism?

Interpreted according to E Michael Jones, A Quiet Place is a cultural expression of the blood-guilt of abortion, which it attempts to defuse by depicting a death for which none of the family members is entirely responsible. The guilt, as usual in horror and related genres, is depicted as an impersonal and irrational monster that kills just because it can. But one of the things that lifts this particular story above others in the same genre is the fact that it is more honest than most about the nature of, and the solution to, repressed guilt.

“Who are we if we can’t protect them?” the mother asks, and the answer is: nobody, because protecting your family is worth giving your life for. The mother feels guilty because she could have kept her lost child under closer supervision. The eldest child feels guilty for her own part in causing the tragedy, and her guilt drives a wedge between her and her father. At one stage, the father says that nobody was to blame for the death, but another character points out that he has never told his daughter that he loves her. His silence speaks louder than words or actions to show that deep down, he really does blame her.

As the family’s covenant head, Christian ethics would dictate that the father should accept the ultimate blame for his child’s death: he is responsible before God, after all, for all of them. I thought this film did an excellent job of showing what happens when a covenant head refuses this duty. Because the father refuses to accept guilt, the full burden of that guilt falls on his wife and daughter: “the woman thou gavest me” is the one blamed for causing the trouble. As the story unfolds, we see that this burden of guilt is not lifted until the father breaks his silence to express his love for his daughter through unmistakable words and actions.

Thinking it over, I think that this is the symbolic key to the silence motif in the film. The daughter is physically deaf, but also emotionally deaf to her father’s love. The father keeps his family silent in order to protect them, but he’s also silent about his love for his family and his own ultimate responsibility for his child’s death. Although the father has many heroic qualities, his silence has bred monsters that threaten to destroy his family if they ever try to break that silence. It’s only when he breaks the silence, surrendering to the monster he’s created, accepting his guilt, that the rest of his family has a hope of finding peace and freedom.

Did the scriptwriters mean to express all this? I don’t know. I believe there is much intentional symbolism in this film. I also believe that a well-crafted story like this one is going to wind up expressing deep truths which maybe the scriptwriters don’t always intend. All things considered, I think that A Quiet Place has much to say about the dire weight of covenantal responsibility that falls on parents, especially fathers, to take the final ethical responsibility for what happens in their families.

I recently saw it argued that the word kephale, translated “head” in the New Testament, has reference to “source” or “origin” rather than “authority” or “rule.” That debate is not closed. I’ve heard interesting arguments for and against that suggestion. But I thought that this film was a great illustration of what that might mean in practice. As covenant head, a father’s actions affect the whole body of his family. If he serves the body and takes the final moral responsibility for everything that happens in that family, accepting the final burden of guilt for himself, then two things will happen. First, rather than being a source of death and destruction to the body, he will become the source of life. And second, he will become truly authoritative to his wife and children in a way he never could be without accepting that service and responsibility.

There’s so much more that could be said about this movie—for instance, Emily Blunt’s wonderful performance as an indomitable wife and mother whose predicament at one point parallels that of the woman in Revelation 12:1-6. But I’ll wrap it up there. If you haven’t seen A Quiet Place, and if you think your nerves will stand up to the strain, I would highly recommend seeing it.

***

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her parents and siblings, writing and publishing historical fantasy fiction informed by a covenantal Christian perspective on history. Visit her online at suzannahrowntree.site.

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