We don’t usually expect to find the Cleaver family in a modern horror movie. But John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place gives us just that. The movie opens by introducing the quintessential Midwestern family: a mom and dad, and three beautiful kids. Their oldest is deaf (a fact that’s treated realistically throughout the movie), and she exhibits the traditional oldest-sister mothering tendencies toward her younger brothers.
Set in any other genre, the married-in-real-life Krasinski and Emily Blunt’s idyllic family feels about as mythical as a unicorn coming out of Hollywood. I’m not the only one picking up on Krasinski’s traditional depiction of family. Reviewers for The New Yorker, The Economist, and Impulse Gamer, among others, have a range of critique not of the movie but of the family contained in that movie.
In a world wrestling with the dynamic of both sex and gender roles, A Quiet Place seems to have struck a nerve—at least in the secular world. That traditional family and the value of life would stand out so starkly against the backdrop of late-August cornfields seems to have riled up the entire political spectrum.
But as a Christian who’s had many off-and-on-the-web conversations about gender roles within marriage, I felt like the horror movie had something more to offer. As the Christian evangelical world wrestles with the matrix in which both men and women operate, A Quiet Place offers an intriguing picture.
The timing’s pretty good too. In the last few weeks, John Piper’s opinions about the place of women in the home, church, and society made the rounds again on social media. To his credit, Piper takes his complementarian theology to its natural conclusion and stands firm on his conviction. But for most readers, the idea that a woman should never exhibit any kind of direct, personal authority over a man in any situation is bizarre at best but trends toward disturbing.
Piper represents only a small portion of the spectrum of complementarians (those who believe God created men and women with distinct and defined roles in marriage, church, and society generally speaking). And it’s one thing to say he’s off his rocker or disparaging of women or simply overly zealous in his application of niche theology. It’s another to try to push toward a picture of men and women that sees distinctness but also harmony.
Forgoing a Hierarchy of Dominance
In moments of brave transparency, I share with people on occasion my deep and abiding love of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. Say what you like, but over and over again, the sheer power of the professional dance crew keeps me coming back. It’s not male-centered power, either—it’s complementarity. It’s men and women who, as equals, play two halves of a drama. Each needs the other. Each supports the other. And the final product—whether it’s the Argentine Tango or the Foxtrot—is greater than the sum of its parts.
I didn’t expect a similar picture coming out of a horror movie. But A Quiet Place left me with just as compelling an argument for complementarity as any perfect-ten dance. But before I get to that, I should probably stop and explain why I’ve used the word “complementarity” instead of “complementarianism” twice now.
Without diving into a protracted engagement in Genesis 1–2 (close, but not quite as bad as going in against a Sicilian with death on the line), I’ll say this: generally speaking God created men and women to be biologically, neurologically, and emotionally different. That difference, however, doesn’t create a hierarchy of dominance (and I have no intent on creating one in this article). Instead, complementarity means that men and women were designed for each other to work in concert, producing something that transcends what one sex alone could do.
What A Quiet Place does, then, is take the traditional gender roles of the “good ol’ days” and then dump them into a world that, frankly, couldn’t care less who does the dishes. The movie asks if maybe the roles of husband and wife, father and mother, child and parent in application aren’t as easily delimited as our abstract theologizing would hope.
Living the Crisis of Parenting
In a directorial masterpiece, Krasinski invites viewers into the very normal—and very real—crisis of parenting. As children grow, parents face the existential fear of letting go. Protecting and preparing run on a sliding scale. The inevitable struggle in a mom or dad’s heart and mind runs along those tracks. How do I relent of my inborn drive to protect my child and instead prepare them to stand on their own two feet?
The premise of A Quiet Place is simple, really. Take that rather ordinary war that rages in the breast of every father or mother and bring it to a boil with post-apocalyptic aliens ravaging the world, and any person can experience parenthood.
But Krasinski’s movie invites the watcher literally into the experience. The never-ending silence in the film isn’t just a trope—it makes the watcher an active participant in the tension of the story. And the intensity of each and every minute of the movie asks the audience to feel the very real pain of parenting.
For that alone, A Quiet Place is worth seeing. But after a week of reflecting on the movie, I arrived at the conclusion that it portrays, perhaps accidentally, the value of complementarity in human relationships.
Surviving through Self-sacrifice
The characters all start off in the story in their typical roles. Krasinski’s the protector and provider. Blunt’s the nurturer and homemaker. Even in a post-apocalyptic world replete with murderous aliens, the rhythm of traditional family life goes largely undisturbed. Blunt homeschools her children. Krasinski hunts-and-gathers. Their teen daughter rebels and younger son fears fishing.
To those who grew up in a similar family dynamic, the movie feels like home. Those who may not have had a “traditional” upbringing might find it foreign or just campy. But the family structure some could call patriarchal in A Quiet Place quickly crumbles under the weight first of the ever-present loss of a child and, later, the inescapable crisis of a soon-to-be newborn.
When the pressure increases in lockstep with Emily Blunt’s expertly acted labor contractions, the lines between complementarian roles begin to blur and then disappear altogether. It’s as if the traditional gender roles were simply a holding pattern for the family. Because when the life of the newest member goes on the line, everyone does what’s absolutely necessary to serve each other.
Krasinski’s character can’t give birth for Blunt’s. That’s a biological impossibility. But he can be her helper in the process—and I’m not talking about helping her breathe correctly. In the movie, the super-hearing aliens descend on the farmhouse just as Blunt’s contractions transition to delivery. Something has to happen in order to keep her and the new baby alive. So Krasinski turns to his son—the one who didn’t want to do the “manly” fishing trip—and sends him on a mission alone to light a massive bunch of fireworks that will draw all the monsters right to him.
Krasinski looks the terrified boy in the eye and signs, “Your mom needs you. You can do this.” With fear still in his eyes, the boy responds and succeeds in lighting the rockets in time to cover his mother’s screams. But it’s not because she’s weak and helpless and needs a man to fight her battles. Blunt herself goes to war against the aliens to protect both her infant and her other children.
As the movie races toward the climax, each character lays aside their holding-pattern role to do whatever they can for the sake of one or more family members—up to and quite literally including laying down their own life.
Now, I’m not one to Jesus-juke movies, but since walking out of my mid-morning screening of A Quiet Place, I can’t help but wonder if that’s how this whole mutual-submission thing works. Each of us—both men and women—have an obligation to each other up to and including laying down our lives. We have holding patterns, sure: the cultural fabric that we gravitate toward in order to survive the mundaneness of life.
God designed men and women differently, but he called us to the same task: love of others. That’ll manifest through our complementarity, sure. But when the mundane gives way to the terrifying, the holding pattern of cultural roles can—and probably should—also give way to self-sacrifice. And maybe the husband-and-father will bare his heart to a crying teen daughter and the wife-and-mother will load the shotgun. It may be the only way we survive.
And that’s worth talking about.