“A Quiet Place” celebrates disability without tokenization.
[Content note: spoilers ahead]
By Jazmine Joyner
I was worried before seeing “A Quiet Place”, a new horror film directed by John Krasinski. It stars Emily Blunt, Krasinski, Noah Jupe, and deaf actress Millicent Simmonds. The film is about a family in a post-apocalyptic world where the absence of sound is crucial to keeping themselves alive. I was worried because Hollywood has a terrible track record with shining a positive and humanizing light on people with disabilities, especially in the horror genre.
We are often seen as the grotesque monster; our disabilities used to accentuate the horror—like the blind nurses in “Silent Hill”. If disabled people aren’t shown as the monster, then we are often portrayed as the head henchmen to the main villain. Our primary weapon is somehow associated with our ailment. Le Chiffre in the 2006 James Bond film “Casino Royale” was blind in his left eye—he murders, steals and plunders, giving more credence to the idea that evil people are even more corrupt or immoral when they have some type of physical disability. This tradition continues with films like “Don’t Breathe”, where the blind man whose house is broken into turns out to be a complete and total creep. And in “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, the double amputee, Gazelle, has swords for lower legs and likes to chop everyone in half at the order of her evil boss.
So, walking into the theater, I had genuine reservations about how Millicent’s character, Reagan, would be represented in the story. To say I was pleasantly shocked by “A Quiet Place” would be an understatement. I wasn’t expecting such a smart, nuanced horror film that was not only entertaining, but brilliant in the way it integrates sign language and Reagan’s deafness. Because the world around them has been taken over by otherworldly beings who hunt by the slightest sound, the only way to survive is to be quiet. They walk around barefoot on sand they pre-laid, the children don’t play with noisy toys, and thanks to Reagan, who was born deaf, the family has the advantage of communicating through sign language.
Sign language became an official and integral character of the film, so much so that when dialogue was spoken, it felt out of place in the world Krasinski created. In many films, Reagan’s deafness would probably be seen as a weakness, and to some extent, Reagan’s father, Lee, does see it as one. He refuses to take her on hunting expeditions, instead opting to take her extremely anxious and scared little brother; never the capable Reagan. But throughout the film, we are reminded that her disability is the real strength of this film. If she wasn’t deaf, her family would have no way of proper fluid communication because they wouldn’t have learned sign language. It is because of Reagan’s disability that her family has a leg up in this soundless apocalypse. And throughout the film she proves how capable she is time and time again, gaining not only her father’s trust, but also banishing any doubts the audience might have.
Then, there is Reagan’s hearing aid or cochlear implant. The Mayo Clinic defines them as, “an electronic device that partially restores hearing. Unlike hearing aids — which amplify sound — a cochlear implant bypasses damaged portions of the ear to deliver sound signals to the auditory (hearing) nerve.” Reagan’s cochlear implant is on the fritz. So, Lee works tirelessly learning how to make her a new one. The most recent one he makes her is a dud, but Reagan keeps it on, and we soon find out that that little device is what inevitably saves them all from the menacing aliens hunting them down.
Reagan is the star of this film, and her disability saves the world as she knows it. Lee’s broken earpiece begins to emit a piercing frequency anytime the sound-sensitive aliens come near. The sound damages and discombobulates the aliens, allowing Reagan and her family to defend themselves. This film is one of the first times I have seen a movie which celebrates and uplifts a disability., and her accessibility aid is used to ware off evil. It shows that there is nothing wrong with this girl, and that in fact, she is perfect exactly as she is..
Sadly in 2018, this type of celebration is a revolutionary act because it is so rare to have a big movie centering a girl like Reagan, and to hire an actual deaf actress in one of the lead roles. Hollywood isn’t shy when it comes to making films about disabled people—“inspiration porn” is a genre that uses disabled people as props to make the abled-bodied characters become inspired and fix their lives, all while the disabled character suffers to bring the able-bodied character’s self-realization and hope. Films like “A Fault in Our Stars”, “A Walk to Remember”, “Rory O’Shea Was Here”, “Wonder” , and “Me Before You” — none of these films cast a disabled person to play the disabled characters. The film industry usually uses our bodies and an aspect of our experiences, but doesn’t bother to cast any disabled actors. So, I wasn’t shocked when I read that Krasinski had to fight to have Millicent Simmonds in “A Quiet Place”. With a film centered on a deaf character and her disability being a significant plot point of the film, it’s obscene that he even had to butt heads with the studio to hire a deaf actress.
But I am glad that Krasinski got his way. “A Quiet Place” wouldn’t be nearly as good without Millicent Simmonds’ performance as Reagan Abbott. Films like this are so important not only for the masses to see that disabled people are human and we can do more than die or be monsters on screen, but “A Quiet Place” could start a dialog on how hiring disabled actors in films is not some strange niche thing. You can celebrate and see someone’s disability as an advantage and not paint it as something that someone needs to be always free from or feel sorry for themselves.
“A Quiet Place” is a thrilling film that celebrates disability. It is an exciting, terrifying, film that had me at the edge of my seat the entire time. I highly suggest you see it and support a powerful movie that puts a deaf girl at its center.
Author Bio: Jazmine Joyner is a black disabled femme writer who resides in Southern California. In her free time she likes to write, play video games, and read.