WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS TO A QUIET PLACE
When we first meet Regan, she is using sign language with her little brother. He has drawn a crude rocket-ship on the floor of an abandoned small town pharmacy their parents are raiding for flu medicine, while their other brother sits nearby, dampened by illness. Regan compliments her little brother’s imagination. He signs back that a spaceship will help them escape an unmentioned threat, and her smile turns to a frown. That one moment of silent emotion tells the audience something is very wrong in director/actor John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. But it also indicates that communication, care, and survival persist in this world only because the film has a Deaf character at the heart of its post-apocalyptic horror story.
Regan wears a cochlear implant, and her use of American Sign Language has allowed her family to survive in a harsh new America. Bat-winged, lizard-like creatures arrived months before the start of the movie, and they have hunted humanity to dwindling numbers. The monsters are blind, but able to pick up a person’s location at even the tiniest of sounds, due to their super-sensitive hearing. Regan, played by Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, communicates exclusively in ASL, though her parents Lee and Evelyn (Krasinski and Emily Blunt) and her brothers are all hearing. Still, her language is a gift to the entire family, as it allows them to connect with one another in the face of constant danger. Blunt’s signing, in particular, is deeply emotional and expressive; she jokes with and consoles her children in times of stress, while Krasinski’s sharp, commanding signs keep them in line when a monster looms nearby. We witness the clan’s back and forth at the dinner table in ASL, and we watch Regan play a felt-padded version of Monopoly with her other brother Marcus (Noah Juppe), using only sign. The parents and kids may have decamped to a remote upstate New York farm in order to isolate themselves, but they are still a family unit because of Regan’s Deafness.
Krasinski and his crew put a special emphasis on sound in A Quiet Place, working to capture the natural rush of waving corn stalks and the beat of strategic steps on soft earth. But the director plays with his audience as well, planting us in Regan’s perspective mere minutes into the film. As the family treks home from the pharmacy, the soundtrack drops out, leaving behind only a microphone hum, and we experience Regan’s hearing loss for ourselves. It is peaceful. We are reoriented to the visual cues surrounding her, to the attention she gives her parents, to the beauty of the rural landscape. But we also see a danger she did not anticipate, simply because it is happening behind her back. Her little brother Beau (Cade Woodward), the one who drew the rocket, has taken out a toy spaceship she sneaked to him before they left the store. Regan does not see Beau place the batteries in the toy and press a button that makes a blaring noise, but she does see her father race behind her to grab his son. But he’s too late. A monsters charges the group, snatches Beau away, and leaves the family reeling from grief. Regan, of course, blames herself for the loss, and expresses her shame in relationship to hearing technology.
Lee is an engineer of sorts. As the family grieves, and time passes, we see him prepare a new cochlear implant for Regan, made from bits and pieces of radio scraps he’s collected since his son’s death. When he holds out the implant for Regan to take, she pushes his hand back, rejecting his gift. This will help her hear better, he reasons, so she should take the implant. She counters angrily that the implants he makes never work, that she won’t take any more technology from him. Lee places the implant in her hand, and walks away rather than escalate their disagreement. He allows the use of technology to be Regan’s choice, and when she does try the implant on in a later scene, her inability to hear the fingers she snaps behind her head causes her to burst into tears.
This sequence of scenes lays out the rift in Regan’s relationship with her father. She feels that he stopped loving her because she couldn’t save her brother, and he feels it is his responsibility to protect his family, so he focuses more on the nuts and bolts of survival, rather than reassuring his daughter in a dark time. But Simmonds knows there is a deeper issue at play in these moments. In the past, Deaf people have rarely been allowed a vote in how they are educated or how they are treated by the medical establishment. Though technology has vastly improved over time, many in the Deaf community feel that cochlear implants rob them of their lived experience and culture. Regan’s rejection of the implant, as originally written in the script, involved pleading with her dad to stop building the devices. Simmonds plays the scene quite differently, having communicated to Krasinski that she thought Regan would be much more defiant. She wants independence and trust from her father, just as many Deaf people want to make their own medical decisions, and for others to see their Deafness not a liability, but a strong part of their identities. Therefore, Regan forcefully signs and shoves the technology back at her father, taking a strong stance on a much larger political, as well as emotional issue. Lee’s saving grace is that he relents and leaves the choice to her. His creation of the tech is meant as a nurturing gesture, but it takes much more communication before the pair arrives at an understanding.
In the climactic scene of the film, Regan finds herself trapped inside a truck with Marcus, a monster about to burst into through the driver’s side window. Lee is nearby, and the two exchange looks. He knows he must lure the monster away by making a loud noise, and he knows he has no way to protect himself from becoming its prey. As he looks at his daughter, and she looks back at him, he hits upon the best way to reassure her, after all they have been through. “I love you,” he signs. In the original script, this was the end of their moment before Lee shouted to distract the monster, a sound leading to his death. But Simmonds suggested that Krasinski adjust the line, as she had been helping with the ASL throughout the filming. Her suggested alteration significantly changes the characters’ final moment together. In the finished film, Lee first signs, “I love you,” and then follows up with, “I have always loved you.” Simmonds believed this covered the whole of their difficult time together, and Krasinski immediately revised the scene after bursting into tears. The family’s shared bond with ASL is affirmed at film’s close, while allowing this father/daughter pair to heal in an impossible moment.
Upon returning to the farmhouse and reuniting with their mother, Regan sees how many hearing aid parts and radio receivers Lee had collected in his workshop. She picks up a handful of the aids and holds out them out to her mother, while gesturing to the new implant she now wears. Evelyn nods and embraces her crying child, who now views the technology the way Lee had intended. A father’s care, expressed the only way he knew how, becomes the mechanism for the family’s survival in the film’s closing seconds. Attacked by yet another creature, Regan covers her head with her hands, as she has in other encounters, and she causes microphone feedback to run through her implant. The monster responds by writhing in agony, and the daughter understands that her hearing technology can be used as a weapon against her predators. Together, she and her mother amplify her implant’s feedback, and ready themselves to destroy the invaders to their home.
Rather than portraying hearing loss as a weakness or a flaw, “A Quiet Place” presents Deafness as a strength. Deafness is capable of connecting souls, and Deafness is valuable enough to save the entire world. In Regan’s story, we find an exploration that allows audiences to perceive that what makes us different is also what makes us powerful. Krasinski’s film, thanks in large part to Simmonds’ contributions, introduces us to a radical new world, where interdependence is built through understanding, and connection depends on embracing a variety of beautiful ways to communicate.
Sarah Bowden is a teaching artists whose plays have been produced in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Stockholm. For more information about Sarah, you can visit her website at sarahbowden.weebly.com and at Theatre By Numbers (theatre1234.com)