Movies can be frustrating in any number of ways, but maybe the most frustrating is when an almost-great movie misses that target for just one dumb reason. Witness A Quiet Place, which is microscopically close to being my favorite American thriller in at least several months, maybe even a year or two, and instead has to settle all the way down at "well, that was pretty okay, and I think you could do a lot worse than seeing it". And the gulf between those points is pretty much all down to two things, one of which is that the last ten minutes or thereabouts (of an agreeably trim 90-minute feature) suddenly take a swift dive into completely arbitrary plot points and swerves, and ruin all the tentative good will I had for a film that is practically built out of arbitrary leaps in logic that screenwriters Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski hope we won't notice or think too hard about (I noticed; sometimes, I noticed very hard). But that's really just the last ten minutes. The bigger and more pervasive and sometimes actually damaging problem is that A Quiet Place has a non-diegetic musical score, and it really shouldn't.

The reason for this is that, as much as it pretends not to be, A Quiet Place is a gimmick film. It's the post-apocalypse; 89 days post the apocalypse, as we're told by a title card right at the outset. In bits and pieces of information communicated by things like desperately scrawled-out white boards, discarded newspapers, and the like, we find that this apocalypse was caused by a race of aliens that move like coked-up jungle cats and have the slimy texture of Resident Evil cannon fodder, but it's not so very important what they are or where they come from, as how they hunt: the species has no eyes, and no sense of smell, but an extraordinary sense of hearing, which permits them to exactly pinpoint the sound of animals moving from at least several hundred yards away. The survivors of their hungry onslaught - and from all we see, it doesn't appear that there are very many survivors at all - are those that have learned to move and live as silently as possible. One such crew of survivors are the five members of the Abbott family (there are no names spoken in the movie; this all comes from the end credits): Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (Krasinski), and their kids Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward), who had a small advantage: Regan cannot hear, so the whole family already knew sign language.

We learn all of this slantwise: the film's opening sequence plunges us directly into a world of horribly tense silence, as the family moves through a ruined town scavenging for whatever goods and food hasn't been picked over. Practically no dialogue is spoken in the film, for obvious reasons, and so we figure out the mood long before we figure out the plot, and that mood is utterly exhausted and terrified - A Quiet Place is uniquely sensitive to being fucked up by a bad audience, but when I saw it in a packed theater, the immediate, tangible sense of alertness in the room at the realisation that the film would in fact be playing at a very quiet level indeed, and every single rustle, creak, and distant bang would be placed with gravest care by the sound mixing team... this was almost a holy thing, one of the best in-theater experiences I've had in an extremely long time. The feeling of several dozen human souls all obviously trying not to breathe - it is the reason movies in a theater still matter.

Anyway, the film plays this out in its amazing opening sequence, ratcheting up the tension as far as it can go by making every mild sound effect feel like a gun going off next to your head, and if this is a gimmick when all is said and done, it's a fucking great gimmick. And then, at a certain point: music. I do not blame Marco Beltrami for doing his job: but it was a bad job to have done. We could talk about whether A Quiet Place has anything to say about parental sacrifice or the need for family in times of great struggle (it pretends like it does, but I think that's just a trick), but it's really about the great sanctity of silence, and the brain-shattering discomfort of having that silence unexpectedly ruptured. And you just can't do that if there's going to be a score. It's an audio cue that breaks the silence for the viewer but not the characters, and when the entire film is built on a foundation of every audio cue being laden with meaning, that cheapens the whole damn experience.

So here we are, where we started: A Quiet Place, which is a pretty neat thriller with some fine setpieces, and a latticework of very dubious plot contrivances. About a year after the opening, the Abbotts have settled into a large, abandoned farmhouse, Lee is constructing a sound-dampened survivalist compound in the basement (the biggest of the film's plot holes, by far: we see that the basement is in fact largely safe from the monsters, so why do they not just stay in the basement?), and Evelyn is pregnant. Very pregnant, in fact, and the question of how to keep a newborn baby alive in an environment where any sound is fatal is the most pressing of many problems facing the family in a film that has less of a "plot" than a chain of individual crises as they almost get violently dismembered and eaten by one of the three monsters in the woods nearby.

There's a slight sameness to the setpieces: a noise is inadvertently made, the aliens come, it takes some incredible self-control to be silent long enough for them to go away. It's kind of like the kitchen scene from Jurassic Park repeated over and over again for the length of a feature, and at its best, A Quiet Place even achieves almost that level of quality: Krasinski, directing his third feature but only his first thriller, has a deft hand for using the empty space in medium close-ups to stage all kind of nerve-wracking unpleasantness, and the film makes a very wise decision very early on to demonstrate the aliens' lethal effectiveness in a way that instantly raises the stakes for the whole film. This is not a movie where you take it for granted that the good guys will win, let us say.

The thing is, there are only so many times one can watch the same basic scenario of the aliens (marvelously gooey CGI effects) go through the same basic motions before it looses its sting, and the film is much too willing to fill in the gaps in its soundtrack with Beltrami's energetic, but largely generic horror movie score. So after a phenomenal opening and a very good, artfully done stretch of exposition in the first half-hour, A Quiet Place ends up diluting its effectiveness enough that it becomes way too easy to notice all the storytelling cheats, the blatant hand-holding in a movie that starts off so subtly ("WHAT IS THEIR WEAKNESS?" screams a white board written by a man who probably does not have to remind himself to wonder what their weakness is), and the big dramatic events that occur solely because the characters are obligingly stupid at narratively convenient moments. I still liked the film, and my God, if you want to see it, see it in a theater: immersion in a distraction-free, sound-controlled environment is key to all its effect, and I don't care who you are, your living room isn't that. But it comes within an eyelash of being a great modern classic of the thriller genre, and it's awfully irritating that it fails for such a pointless reason.