Written by: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Josh Malerman (novel)
Directed by: Susanne Bier
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Under no circumstances are you allowed to take off your blindfold."
I’ve been wrestling with the question of timing as it relates to Bird Box for the past few days. Arriving not only in the immediate shadow of the similarly-themed A Quiet Place but also a decade-long trail of likeminded post-apocalyptic misery, it perhaps has a case for being a victim of its release date. Indeed, it’s tough to watch Bird Box and not consider that we’ve just don’t this sense-deprivation gimmick and we’ve been wallowing in the cinematic end-times forever now. How much of my lukewarm reaction towards this nicely crafted little thriller stemmed from the thudding familiarity surrounding it?
But there’s also the argument that something truly remarkable would be able to outrun any familiarity. Lord knows how many derivative slasher movies I’ve given the benefit of the doubt even when they aren’t exactly groundbreaking. With Bird Box, though, I can’t shake the feeling that it leans too heavily on its more clichéd tropes instead of exploiting its clever hook: what feels like it should be a taut, intense gimmick thriller becomes bogged down by a trite, largely unnecessary backstory that stalls its momentum.
Director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Eric Heisserer seem to get it at first. Bird Box opens on a remarkably tense scene between Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and her children (Vivien Lyra Blair & Julian Edwards), wherein this tough, no-nonsense woman treats these two with the same intensity as a drill sergeant. She informs the kids—who she only addresses as “Girl” and “Boy”—that they’ll be taking a dangerous journey downriver, to a distant sanctuary to evade some malevolent force. In no uncertain terms, she explains to them the danger involved, particularly if they ever remove their blindfolds. Doing so will likely result in their death, though Malorie also threatens to hurt them if they disobey. It’s an immediately gripping moment, one that swells with natural intrigue: just what is this family fleeing from? What could be so horrible to inspire a woman to speak to her children in such an icy manner? And, perhaps most importantly, just how in the hell are they going to survive kayaking down a river blindfolded?
Or at least I find the last question to be the most pertinent. Obviously, the filmmakers disagree, as Bird Box frequently flashes back to several years earlier to chart both the outbreak and immediate fallout of an apocalyptic breakdown. We find Malorie pregnant here and harboring serious reservations about having a child. Those reservations are even more pronounced when a worldwide catastrophe unfolds right before her eyes: panicked, unsettling news broadcasts about mass suicides become a startling reality when everyone around her—including her sister (Sarah Paulson)—fall under the influence of a mysterious, invisible force intoning them to self-destruction. Only the kindness of a stranger pulls her from the chaos and brings her to refuge at a nearby home with several other survivors looking to ride out this apocalypse.
It’s during this prolonged flashbacks that Bird Box is at its most familiar, riffing on Night of the Living Dead and its horde of post-apocalyptic imitators that finds humanity clinging to their existence by a thread and proving to be its own worst enemy. Harrowing supply runs and intense squabbling are natural ingredients in this stale formula, though, to its credit, Bird Box boasts some terrific embellishments. Of course, there’s a belligerent asshole whose ego and hubris endangers the rest of the group, but it helps that he’s played by John Malkovich. There’s the level-headed peace-maker that makes calm, rational decisions, and it helps that he’s played by Trevonte Rhodes. There’s a fast-talking cut-up who happens to be writing an apocalyptic novel that you know isn’t long for this world, and it helps that he’s played by Lil Rel Howery. And, of course, it always helps that your protagonist is played by Sandra Bullock, even if said protagonist is a bit (purposefully) off-putting.
Most of the flashbacks serve as Malorie’s character development. The script is refreshingly light on explaining the invisible menace and instead devotes time to charting Malorie’s journey towards accepting both this bleak new world and her impending motherhood. It’s not the most conventional of character arcs, and there’s something especially bold about defining your protagonist by her icy demeanor towards motherhood and children. Essentially, Bird Box is about a woman reckoning with the responsibilities of such an enormous task, as her entire world becomes consumed with shuttling these two children to safety; more importantly, however, she must process her own trauma and offer actual comfort to her two charges.
Malorie is, quite frankly, a miserable parental figure, as evidenced by that tense opening scene. Such a nuanced depiction is welcome, at least in theory: this is a film that reminds us that everyone processes grief and parenthood differently, and that maternity, especially, is not some innate state of enlightenment that all women magically embrace. And yet, it is fair to say that Malorie spends most of the movie either dreading or struggling with the responsibility of offering empathy and comfort to children. For her, survival is the only concern; what use is there for fairy tales and fun in a world where death is but a stray glimpse away? She may be right—having not raised a child in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, I’m not sure I can judge—but the film certainly doesn’t think so, as the back-end of Bird Box becomes an overly cloying, sentimental slog towards embracing and enjoying life again.
I know that comes across as an odd complaint: “how dare this movie find a glimmer of hope amidst some misery?” strikes me as odd, especially when I’ve become so burnt out on such bleak fare in recent years. But something about Bird Box strikes me as a little too syrupy and obvious, especially since it comes at the expense of the film’s genuinely unsettling horror movie potential. Bird Box features a great hook: a woman and two children must venture downriver and evade mysterious, ephemeral force that requires them to wear blindfolds at all times. Only occasionally, however, does Bier seem to trust in the lean, primal intrigue of the premise: all of the film’s great moments involve characters navigating through absurd scenarios. A quick trip for supplies at a grocery store a few blocks away becomes an entire ordeal without a means of eyesight; likewise, Malorie’s trip downriver has her fending off wild rapids and psychopaths in equal measure.
Even if Bird Box would have inspired even more obvious comparisons to A Quiet Place by doing so, I wish it had leaned into its gimmick a bit more. It’s a hell of a concept, one that’s vaguely Lovecraftian to boot: again, the film provides no explanation—or even a glimpse—of these creatures that have descended to wreak havoc on the world, like an unseen plague spewed forth to eradicate humanity off of the planet. A weird death cult springs up around it, as, for whatever reason, the mentally-ill work on behalf of the unseen menace, forcibly prying open sane survivors’ eyelid, bringing them to their doom. That’s another great wrinkle in a movie with killer horror movie potential—if only it realized as much instead of constantly stalling out with tired, overcooked melodrama. It'll always have its memes, though.
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