It’s time to say it. With just a couple weeks left to go, this has by far been one of the best years for the horror genre in the past couple of decades. From TV shows like The Haunting of Hill House, to the return of Joe Bob Briggs, to new classics like Hereditary, 2018 has been wonderful. But it appears Netflix had one more film they wanted to add to the list of unique ventures into horror this year with the new film Bird Box…
…Directed by Susanne Bier (Serena), from a script by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), Bird Box is based on a novel by Josh Malerman and stars Sandra Bullock as Malorie, a pregnant woman not ready to face being a mother, who is suddenly thrown into an apocalyptic event in which strange creatures are rampaging through the world, causing any who see them to go insane and kill themselves. Holed up in a house with a group of survivors, Malorie must fight to live, knowing that she will eventually have to bring a child into this terrifying new world.
I’ll get this out of the way right now. If not for performances such as Toni Collette in Hereditary, or Dakota Johnson in Suspiria, Bullock might be in the running for best horror performance of the year. Bullock brings a quiet sense of anger and fear to her character that never feels overdone and exaggerated. We don’t have to see Malorie freaking out over the prospect of having a child, because Bullock is able to give us that sense with nothing more than a cursory glance or strained laugh. She is intense, flawed, and utterly relatable in a situation where any one of us might react in the exact same, detached way. Heisserer’s script allows Bullock to bring her A-game, as there is so much pain and frustration for her to work with as a character. After all, the film opens with Malorie about to board a boat on a river with two kids whom she has coldly dubbed Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair), a reflection of her inability to accept that she is a mother. Malorie doesn’t speak to these young children like the near toddlers they are. She is stern and aggressive with them, letting them know that if they take their blindfolds off, they will die. If they don’t listen to her, they will die. It’s not every day, even in horror, that a film opens with kids being warned of their imminent deaths, but that’s how Bird Box begins and it’s a hell of a gut punch to kick things off with.
Bullock is accompanied by an outstanding cast comprised of Trevante Rhodes (Tom), Lil Rel Howery (Charlie), the great John Malkovich (Douglas), and even Sarah Paulson (Jessica) in a brief appearance. Unfortunately, though each of the actors/actresses sell their roles completely, they are vague shadows of characterization compared to Bullock, settling into basic survival horror stereotypes such as the “put together love interest”, Tom, the “everyone for themselves” D-bag, Douglas, and the paranoid comedic relief, Charlie. We’ve seen these characters in almost every film like Bird Box, and none of them will surprise you with their actions, as each of these characters outside of Malorie is kept relatively one-note. What is interesting about the people that populate Bird Box however, is that there is a heavy theme of consequence over helping others. Whether intentional or not, Heisserer’s script seems to punish these characters at just about every turn in which they try to help someone. One person sacrifices themselves saving Bullock. Another creates a rather unfortunate situation after being saved by the group. It’s this idea that you never really can trust anyone, and feeds into the paranoia of the film, expressed through people like Malkovich’s Douglas.
But paranoia is not the only feeling which Bier is able to create through her filmmaking talents. Bird Box is filled with moments of extreme terror, in particular a scene early on in which the whole world begins going crazy, which is full of violence, bloodshed, and genuine fear as we follow Malorie and her sister, Jessica, desperately trying to escape. The concept of creatures which you cannot see at the risk of death, effectively rendering you blind, is a fascinating premise, one which comes at an interesting time. It’s not every year that you have two horror films which work so well together as a pairing, the way we do between Bird Box and A Quiet Place, one dealing with sight, the other with sound. One major difference between the two though is the depiction of the creatures themselves. While A Quiet Place goes with the more traditional creature feature, Bier chooses to supplant her film in a more realistic realm. Sure, the plot still revolves around supernatural creatures, but the actual focus is more closely related to zombie films, which put a microscope on people and how they react to the end of the world, instead of lifting the creatures themselves up as the primary villain. Bird Box is a human story, with human villains, one which is unbelievable but never feels that way, since Bier keeps things simple whenever there is an opportunity to veer off into extravagant territory. Just the other day, Bier was quoted saying that Bird Box was, in fact, originally supposed to feature odd “baby-faced” creatures, which were later scrapped because, as she said, to actually show the creatures would deflate the tension which has been built up in the audience wanting to know what they look like, wanting to know what the characters are seeing. I happen to agree with that. Forget saving the shark until the last reel. Just don’t show the damn thing at all!
I regret to say though, that this does create a major problem for Bird Box. Without something physical to fight, or even an abstract image which the audience and characters can put their peepers on, like a ghost, there isn’t truly anything to “fight”. We often hear of actors having to perform their scenes against monsters in front of green-screens with a tennis ball in front of their face, but in the case of Bird Box, a tennis ball may have been a welcome form of representation, because at least then there would be something. As it stands, there is nothing for Bullock and others to do but run and cover their eyes, and that’s essentially what Bird Box becomes, especially towards the middle and beyond. Hiding and running. Bier and Heisserer do their best to substitute proactivity with genuine, well done tension, such as one clever moment involving GPS, but without anything for our heroes to actively fight, Bird Box can begin to feel a bit repetitive, with the concept growing tired as things wear on. And that isn’t to be negative towards the film. Just like A Quiet Place, Bird Box is an extremely difficult concept to pull off as a filmmaker, and I commend everyone involved for providing as many truly frightening moments as the film does.
But along with a strained repetitiveness, there are questions on the consistency of the rules regarding the creatures as well. At a certain point, we learn that the creatures don’t just cause victims to kill themselves, some they drive into a sort of cultish conversion, people that worship these things and want others to “see”. The “tell” with this group is often a neat pair of murky reptile contacts that have a vague In the Mouth of Madness vibe and make these people look like a bunch of tripped out Lovecraft addicts. The problem is, we aren’t given even the slightest hint as to why some are affected one way, and others another way. Horror is always at its best when it’s not spoon feeding the audience, and that’s not what I’m asking for here, but the audience deserves at least a connection between those that just go insane, because without it, certain moments begin to come off as too coincidental and concocted by the filmmakers instead of a natural occurrence within the confines of the script. Are the infected bad people? Are they weak, afraid, already a little bit crazy? We don’t know, and this leads to some questionable moments, one of which has a huge impact on the story, and I’m still not exactly sure when a certain individual was turned by the creatures.
With the questionable decision to cut back and forth between Bullock and the two kids on the river and the past events that lead to that, along with long areas of the cast not being to actively do much against the creatures, there is a pacing issue which causes the film to feel clogged, just as things are beginning to heat up. But Bier has an exceptional cast and a knack for creating real fear out of a simple gust in the trees, so Bird Box never feels too slowed down to take away from the intriguing premise and tension constantly bubbling up underneath the surface. Bird Box has its flaws, but is a nice gift to us all this late in the year, and teaches us all that no matter what you don’t get for Christmas that you might have wanted, just be grateful for the gift of sight…that is, until a bunch of monsters that kill you for seeing them begin to invade…Happy holidays!
Bird Box is now available to stream on Netflix.
By Matt Konopka