'A Quiet Place: Day One' Review: Lupita Nyong'o and an Astonishing Cat Performance Add New Levels to Apocalyptic … – IndieWire

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“A Quiet Place: Day One” has three superlative stars at its disposal: Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, whose eyes alone can tell a thousand stories, and a pair of astonishing feline performers (Schnitzel and Nico, Schnitzel and Nico!), who together craft a single performance as the world’s bravest movie cat. Filmmaker Michael Sarnoski, who first rose to indie acclaim for his “Pig,” knows his way around movies built on the emotional bond of man (woman) and beast (weird little furry guy), and he unexpectedly — and mostly satisfyingly — brings that knack to his first major Hollywood foray.

Taking on the third film in a massive horror franchise might not sound like the most appealing gig for filmmakers like Sarnoski — even as these types of gigs continue to be the “next step” for some of cinema’s brightest new stars — but the filmmaker manages to bring much of his sensibility and overall texture to the series. Part of that is due to the nature of the prequel itself (go back to where it all began!), part of that is due to the relative freedom to build in new characters and stories, but much of it is thanks to Sarnoski’s ability to pull deep emotionality out of his stars and audience almost immediately.

Despite its title, “A Quiet Place: Day One” isn’t set just over the course of the first day of the invasion of the sharp-hearing (though still bafflingly constructed, it’s no wonder Sarnoski spends so much time focusing on their insect-like legs and feet) alien beings who we first met in John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place.” Instead, we’re pulled on a journey through the first four days of the apocalypse, nearly every moment of it framed around Nyong’o’s extraordinary face. Her Sam is already grizzled and wounded long before the baddies arrive on Earth, and we first meet her at a support group in the hospice in which she fully expects to die from cancer, well, just about any minute now.
Despite the (literally) fuzzy trappings of her support cat Frodo, Sam is, by her own telling, “mean.” She’s got plenty to be pissed off about and truly afraid of, and she hasn’t even met the chittering space freaks who are coming to ruin the only world she’s ever known. But even Sam has some softness, a critical element to Sarnoski’s film, so when hospice nurse Reuben (Sarnoski’s “Pig” co-star Alex Wolff) drafts her into a daytime visit to her former home of New York City for “a show,” she gives in. With some demands! She’d like to get some pizza, some real, honest-to-God, New York City pizza. We understand it will be the last taste of her favorite food. We don’t, however, immediately understand what else it means to her.

Of course, Reuben has picked a hell of a day to zip into the city, and while Sam and Frodo almost immediately book it out of the “show” — a puppet-centric affair in a crappy theater, whose audience members also include “Part II” star Djimon Hounsou, getting a smidge of a backstory that does help shape our perspective on the sequel standout — there’s little respite to be found. Sarnoski’s film opens with a sweeping shot of the NYC cityscape, with an intertitle reminder that the average sound level in the city is 90 decibels (like a “scream” the intertitle tells us), and the filmmaker and his talented sound team steadily ratchet up all that noise during the film’s first moments.
Audience members will likely clock the multiplying sirens or the hustling passerby, but for Sam, awash in her own pain (literally: she’s only able to manage a cancer that makes her muscles feel as if they are “on fire” as long as she’s got a fresh fentanyl patch), it’s just life in the city. Until it isn’t. Two movies in, we’re well-aware of the dangers of the all-hearing, barely-seeing aliens that have landed on Earth, but Sarnoski also delights in playing up their other terrifying feature: once they hear you, once they clock you, they just take you, whoosh you away, it’s over. The less we see of the aliens, the better, and Sarnoski leans heavily on the abject fear his characters (and audience) feel once someone makes just a hair too much noise, knowing exactly what’s coming next.

And while Sam (and Frodo!) survive the first barrage of attacks, that amounts to very little in this brave new world. Sam eventually alights on a plan: she’s going to get pizza. Not just any pizza, but pizza from the joint next door to the place where her father used to take her to watch him play piano at a beloved jazz club. Sam’s pilgrimage to upper Manhattan might serve as a predictable beat in a script (from Sarnoski, who also shares story credit with Krasinski) that grows heaver with them, but the intractability of her fate adds a tragic new dimension to the story. As she sets out across the city, Sam comes into contact with other survivors, like the terrified kids she helps shepherd toward the boats heading out of the city, and some heart-pounding traps that almost kill her and Frodo with startling regularity.
Frodo, being a cat, is prone to running off when the going gets tough (he, being a delightful cat, always comes back). After a particularly horrifying stampede almost takes out both Sam and her feline friend (and plenty of other traumatized survivors), Frodo dips, Sam takes shelter in an alley, and an absolutely shattered young man (Joseph Quinn) emerges from the depths of a flooded subway stop. There’s no one else in front of or behind him. He’s wholly alone. And then he makes eye contact with a curious cat.

While Krasinski’s two previous “Quiet Place” films were family affairs — not just co-starring his own real-life wife Emily Blunt, but partially constructed as love letters from the filmmaker to the duo’s daughters — Sarnoski’s entry into the series is more interested in found family. When Quinn’s Eric starts following Frodo, he inevitably starts following Sam, and it’s only a matter of time before they all start bonding. In the face of such terror, even hard-hearted Sam has to crumble. It doesn’t hurt that Eric, like nearly everyone else in the film, keenly understands that it’s possible everyone he actually knows and loves is dead (Sarnoski’s film doesn’t waste much time reminding us of the specifics of the aliens and their invasion, an impulse he passes on to his characters). Sam and Frodo might be all he has left.
As the trio journey to the north — even as boats continue to fill with survivors on the southern tip of the island — they encounter a host of plot twists, both familiar and new. As in the first “Quiet Place” films, much attention is paid to getting one member of the party essential medicine (cue an odd homage to the first film’s many trips to the local pharmacy), while Sarnoski also finds the time to pay attention to further building the lore of the aliens in ways that feel both out of place and totally unimportant. While Sarnoski keeps the tension high — as his stars similarly keep the emotion top of mind — a certain predictability bogs down the film’s slack middle act.

But then, in the midst of a film that constantly feels as if it’s just about to tip too far into the expectations and requirements of franchise filmmaking, Sarnoski pulls us back. One moment, Sam, Eric, and Frodo are fleeing from a seemingly very avoidable alien: The next, the trio emerge out of the wet darkness of the flooded subway to a hole ripped in the middle of a church, filled with praying survivors. It’s a moment of profound beauty in the midst of a prequel trying its damndest to exist on its own terms.
And while it would be nice to have more moments of that sort of grace, “A Quiet Place: Day One” offers enough of them to stand on its own merits within the confines of other people’s stories, dreams, and nightmares. It makes its own noise.
Paramount Pictures will release “A Quiet Place: Day One” in theaters on Friday, June 28.
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