On Space and Grace

“We are a wandering people, even now that we have a dwelling place; as human beings, we are never fully at home; ultimately nothing belongs to us, we are always on the move. And for that very reason, everything we have we share, and we belong to one another.”
—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Cardinal Ratzinger writes the above words in a reflection on Holy Thursday, capturing the distinct character and the central paradox of Christian life: that we live with one foot in this world and one in the next. It is an appropriate meditation for the Passover season; it is much easier to forget during ordinary time. But I found myself returning to these words the first time I sat through John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place earlier this year. In the midst of a world of commercialized art that speaks and sells, A Quiet Place says nearly nothing. Its silence instead reminds us of the quiet work of divine grace in our lives—something we often fail to recognize amidst the noise and bustle of the everyday—and it creates an empty space in us to receive it. Upon receiving it, grace then compels us to a reciprocal motion: we acknowledge that same absence in those around us, and move to fill it. Too often, we rely on our words to do so. But A Quiet Place, in showing us a family stripped of language, proposes that our words aren’t enough; it challenges us to give ourselves fully to our community.

The film follows the silent lives of a couple, played by Krasinski and Emily Blunt, and their three children as they struggle to create a home following an undisclosed tragedy of global proportions. The first shot finds the family in the ruins of a drugstore foraging for abandoned first-aid supplies. It is 87 days after the catastrophe. None of the characters speak, but their faces express the gravity of their circumstance. A few strategically placed newspapers reveal that three monsters of ambiguous origin have nearly annihilated the population, but they can only locate humans through sound. The family survives only because each of its members knows sign language, a small grace afforded to them by the oldest daughter—she is deaf. Her deafness (and, perhaps, the deafness that we the audience experience) speaks to the mystery of grace in human life, manifesting itself as a deficiency; context renders that deficiency a gift. Because of it, the family endures as the last remaining social structure in the film.

We rightly associate social structures with a shared geographical location: the nuclear family gathers in the house, the church family in the sanctuary, the city within its limits. The physical place provides the ground for communal interaction. The same holds true for the spoken word—it offers a shared linguistic space inside of which humans carry out fundamental communication.  A Quiet Place shows us the consequences of the deprivation of these two spaces, the geographical and the linguistic, and they are dire. But the grace that provides for the family’s survival also moves them to a new, shared ground for interaction: because they have lost the spoken word, they revert to the language of gift. In the absence of words to express care for each other, they rely on their deeds. Even their sign language is an appropriate image of self-gift, as it speaks to the sacrifice each member has made to accomodate to the needs of a family member. Because they lack a home, they become, like the children of Israel, a wandering people—nothing belongs to them; they are always on the move. Without a geographical space to which they can bind themselves, they recognize an urgent need for each other. Everything they have, they share, and they belong to one another.

This forced detachment to physical location and spoken word restructures the family’s entire life. One particularly striking scene finds them at mealtime. To avoid the inevitable noise produced by silverware and porcelain, they eat with their hands. This action, of eating, renders each of them particularly vulnerable: with their hands occupied, they lose even their sign language. Yet their inability to communicate with each other does not discourage the sense of community we typically associate with mealtime. If anything, it forces each into a heightened awareness of the others: each family member, like the audience, must deliberately search each face for meaning. Without the mediation of words, they put their inner lives on display, opening themselves to each other in order to maintain the familial bond. In the context of their meal, it is the shared consciousness of silence that provides the space for interaction. As they begin their meal with prayer, they link hands. The camera offers an aerial shot of the circle they have created—a fitting image of that shared, silent space.

Donne tells us that no man is an island; the family in A Quiet Place triumphs because each family member, in the absence of word and place, recognizes his survival as contingent to that of the continent. The family as a whole reminds each of its parts of the empty space latent in himself and in the others. Without the aid (or, as the film proposes to us, the hindrance) of words, each seeks to fill that space with the only gift possible: that of self. This notion of self-gift is the most striking part of the film, and its greatest appeal—we see the family loving each other in and through the daily minutia, and we believe it precisely because they never voice it. Krasinki’s and Blunt’s relationship is especially moving because, in its silence, it does not advertise itself as anything other than what it is. Perhaps this is why it is so convincing: because it makes no statements about itself, it allows us as the audience to determine whether their love is true.  Happily, it is—they are married both on and off screen. But even more significant than the reality of their love is the productivity therein: the greatest instance of gift in the film, and the most prominent plot point, is the mother’s conception of a child in the midst of calamity. Her pregnancy, and the family’s prolonged efforts to construct a soundproof shelter for the birth, offer to the audience an ongoing claim about the nature of love: it must always be bound to self-gift. Self-gift redefines the individual as contingent, and in doing so, it reminds us that everything we have we share, and we belong to one another.

A Quiet Place’s central theme is gift; its paradox, then, lies in the way that it moves its audience by virtue of what it does not give. Offering only 90 lines of dialogue in its entirety, the film’s near absence of sound robs us moviegoers of the luxury of drowning out the sounds of our own lives with the noise we expect from cinema. Instead of offering an escape from our own consciousness, the film heightens our awareness of it.  A prominent newspaper headline in one scene that reads “they can hear you” (referring to the monsters) is just as much a warning to the audience about the consequences of popcorn munching as it is a device for plot explanation. Watching the film in a crowded theater is truly uncomfortable because at no point can we the audience forget the strangeness of our own circumstance, sitting motionless for hours in a dark room full of strangers. Every film begins with a “silence your cellphones” because we, as commercial consumers, do not want to be reminded of the presence of others infringing upon our cinematic experience. But that is exactly what A Quiet Place forces us to do: acknowledge our lives as relational to others. Because the most prominent soundscape of the film is the sound in the theater, each foot tapped and wrapper ripped reminds us that we are always hearing and being heard.

I like to think that Krasinski drew some inspiration for A Quiet Place from his tenure as Jim from The Office. We the audience are made uncomfortable when Jim speaks directly to the camera because in doing so, he implicates us into a conversation: we are no longer just viewers. As he breaks the fourth wall, Krasinski, in both instances, opens himself to us and asks us to reciprocate. But it is this opening of ourselves that makes us so uncomfortable—in doing so, we leave ourselves vulnerable. Such a fear is not unfounded, given that so much of the art we consume today does have sinister motives rooted in profit and ideology. Even A Quiet Place, as a commercial film, commodifies its message: it has made more than $300 million at the box office, and Krasinski has already committed to the production of a sequel.

Even more frightening than our manipulation for profit, though, is the possibility that if we open ourselves to that space for silence, for divine grace, for the gift of the other, we might not find anything—that behind the veil of noise, no transcendent meaning exists. Hemingway deals with this possibility in his short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” After an encounter with a deaf man (we can certainly find parallels both to this man and to the story’s title in the daughter from A Quiet Place), one of the characters reflects: “What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.”

Perhaps it is this fear, the fear of nothingness, that so often drives us to fill our lives with sound. But the purgation of noise in A Quiet Place does not point us towards nothingness. Instead, it argues that if we create a space for silence, we might receive the quiet grace of the everyday. By stripping away the soundscape in which we so often shroud ourselves, the film shines a light on the moments of man’s transcendence. The best instance of this in the film is the impossibility of the mother’s silent pregnancy and birth.  My own moviegoing companions voiced the complaint that “it’s unrealistic!” This is true. To conceive and a bear a child knowing that any sound could kill the entire family is unrealistic, but so is the motion of grace in human life—for what is grace, if not the unrealistic, unexpected, and undeserved punctuation of our lives by the divine? Hopkins famously tells us that “the just man justices, keeps grace, that keeps all his goings graces.” This is exactly what the family does. They are kept alive by grace, and they keep grace: the birth of a child perfectly images that grace as an act of total, generative self-gift.  

We as students would do well to remember to give more of ourselves to our community—but we can only give in proportion to what we receive. A Quiet Place reminds us that silence creates that space for us to give and receive. In separating ourselves from the cacophony of the quotidien, we recognize that even amidst the fullness of our schedules, we are incomplete—we are a wandering people, even now that we have a dwelling place….everything we have we share, and we belong to one another.

Natalie Taylor is a senior studying English.

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