Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Sound Of Silence... and the pain of parenthood

Warning: spoilers.  Don't read this if you plan to watch the film A Quiet Place and like to be surprised.

A Quiet Place was not what I expected.  I'd anticipated a tense, original thriller akin to the better sort of video game, in which ordinary people evaded monsters in inventive ways under unusual circumstances.

That turned out to be only partly true.  What I didn't know was that the film would pack a much deeper emotional punch, comparable to Lynch's Eraserhead or Aronofsky's Mother!  

Yes, it's a simple set-up.  An unexplained alien invasion has resulted in mass destruction and a world in which pockets of survivors cling to life by maintaining almost complete silence.  The huge, armoured predators which hunt humanity are blind, but have incredibly keen hearing.  Make one sound that's not masked by something louder, and you're dinner.  Those who want to live have constructed communications systems built out of sign language, whispers and signals.  Those who want to die - like the old man whose wife is butchered by a prowling predator in the woods - simply scream.

Our viewpoint family - engineer father, doctor mother - have already suffered one terrible bereavement, when their youngest son Beau is taken by one of the beasts in full view of his parents and siblings. Now it's about keeping their heads down and maintaining a daily routine that won't attract attention.  The surviving son Marcus (Noah Jupe) is nervous and traumatised, but must learn from his father Lee (actor/director John Krasinski) how to move through the environment undetected and scavenge for food where he can. Daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who's deaf, is racked with guilt; she feels responsible for her little brother's death, and believes, wrongly, that she has forfeited her parents' love.

The situation moves into crisis when we realise that Evelyn, the mother (Emily Blunt) is now pregnant.  There's a mounting horror, worse than the dread of death, which takes root at the back of your mind as her belly grows; even if this woman manages to give birth in silence, how will they keep the baby quiet?  What sort of life can it possibly have?

When Evelyn finally goes into labour, it's in the most horrifying circumstances imaginable.  She is alone, and she is being hunted.   I'd sometimes dared to wonder what it must be like for women who have to give birth in war zones, or prison camps, or as refugees fleeing those who want to murder them.   I was taken straight back to the bloody trauma of my own children's difficult births, and more than that - to the overwhelming, visceral need to protect the helpless new life which flooded through my system and took over my whole personality.  You can see it, this time of year, in the eyes of the ewes in the fields, once again responsible for blithe young lives that  for the most part, will be short ones.

For the humans in A Quiet Place, survival is everything.  The need for it is raw, immediate, and it will only function if this small family community can work together to protect each other. The bond between the parents is strong  and their instincts to protect their offspring are a constant, personal responsibility.  Here, there are no carers, no teachers, no doctors or social workers to help.  Here, there can be no lone-wolf posturing; the isolated get picked off.  Lose touch with each other, 
and all is lost.

When the baby is born, and hidden, insulated in a womb of blankets and padding in a soundproofed cellar under a mattress trapdoor, the family are still not safe from threat.  The sinister, insectoid predators still have the upper hand; they are a sword of Damocles which will fall at the slightest error, the slightest sound, at something as basic to life as a baby's cry.

I remembered how vulnerable I felt as a new mother, a quarter of a century ago.  We lived in a tiny cottage with a coal fireplace, and for a while I had a recurring nightmare that someone would invade the house, steal my newborn baby and put him on the fire as though he were fuel.  Those night horrors came out of the new responsibility I had, the utterly atavistic need to keep watch, to guard against danger, to keep the children safe. From fire. From predators.  From anything that could hurt them.

I knew back then, when they were small, that I would sacrifice myself without question if that's what it took to protect my sons.  I remember telling friends who became parents that the instinct never truly goes away, even when your children tower over you, outstrip you, leave the nest for lives of their own.  Still, it recedes, becomes less immediate a feeling.  But when, at the end of A Quiet Place, the father has to give himself up to the predators to draw them away from his fleeing children, the moment made sense to me in a way that I had not felt for years, drawing all the power of that parental instinct to the surface and pitching me back into something I suddenly felt unable to handle.

Just as the helpless, nightmare child in Eraserhead was an embodiment of Lynch's own fear of being converted into a father, A Quiet Place made me feel that its entire setting - monsters and all - was an extended metaphor for the terrors of parenthood, the intense vulnerability which it brings.  When you're young, for much of the time you feel impregnable.  If you're growing up in a more or less civilised time and place, danger and death are things which happen to other people.  But as soon as you become a parent, you're constantly subject to a sense of looming peril which could come from literally anywhere. I once heard it described as walking around with your heart outside your body.  Yet you must learn not to give in to fear.  You cannot protect your children by shielding them from the world.  You must teach them to survive in it.

Which is what makes the ending of A Quiet Place so fitting, as well as heavily ironic. The predators are made vulnerable to attack by the one thing they have not evolved to deal with: sound. It's howling feedback from an amplified hearing aid which ultimately overcomes their defences, and it's Regan, the girl who cannot hear, who sets their doom in motion. Her father's sacrifice - and his love for her, symbolised by the cochlear implant he's been trying to repair - has enabled her.  She has weaponised her own disability and used it to find the chink in the predators' armour. And by doing so, she has learned to protect what's left of her family and assuaged her own terrible sense of guilt.

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