Bird Box from Netflix features a strong performance from Sandra Bullock. The story does not have the same strength as its protagonist.
There’s something curious about the recent spate of post-apocalyptic stories featuring zombies. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I grew up not being a fan of horror films. As I come to have a better understanding of what the term actually means, I’ve begun to realize that there is a duality to the phrase ‘horror.’ By that I mean there are stories that are meant to be scary, such as “Halloween.”
Then, there are stories like Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, which portray the horrors of survival.
Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is a very tense woman. As the film opens, we don’t know why she’s tense, but we’re aware that the environment which surrounds her is full of danger as she instructs two, young children to not take their blindfolds off; that the journey they’re about to take requires their absolute concentration. Bier then jumps backward five years to the point at which Malorie’s story starts.
Malorie is pregnant and getting a check-up when, amidst the chaos, we learn of a strange occurrence in Europe where mass suicides are occurring. The news is easily dismissed until it happens right in front of her. Unable to initially escape, Tom (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight) rescues her from the attack only to be forced into hiding with other frightened strangers.
These early scenes in Bird Box depict not only the struggle for shelter, but the struggle for survival. Each of the people in the home are terrified. No one has exact information on what’s going on in the outside world, so in a sense, the audience is isolated. This is accomplished by papering the windows to prevent outside contact with whatever is compelling people to commit suicide.
By isolating ourselves though, Bird Box also forces the survivor’s guilt and rage to the forefront. And that’s where this film’s eclectic cast comes into play. Legendary for his intentionally deliberate delivery, John Malkovich plays Douglas, a spiteful and vindictive individual who puts himself first. He’s the type of person who believes in rules and will do what it takes to protect himself first and by a “halo effect,” he protects others. BD Wong, who owns the home is willing to take other people in, but his desire to protect others is quickly outweighed by the needs of survival.
At one point, a furious knocking at the front door introduces us to Olympia (Danielle MacDonald). She is scared and in need of shelter. In a rather convenient moment of fortuity, Olympia is also pregnant. However, Olympia is a lot less sure of herself than Malorie. At the same time, Olympia has a lot more heart than Malorie, leading Olympia to open the home to yet another stranger, Gary (Tom Hollander).
Hollander has a smooth on-screen presence throughout the film. We’re aware that not everything is as it seems with him, but we don’t question his presence either. This leads to an unintentionally hilarious moment with Malkovich, but reminds us of our insatiable need for self-preservation.
The introduction of Olympia and of Gary are meant to build tension in the film and in Olympia’s case, progress the story forward. I found the Olympia character more annoying and ingratiating simply because she reminded me of, well me.
The way Bird Box‘s story is structured, Gary’s placement is awkward. He shifts the plot forward in an effective way, but his presence also undermines the future tension by forcing events forward. By this I mean that there is a five year gap between Malorie’s ride down the river and the escape from the house.
Bird Box also makes sure that we detach ourselves from feeling for the characters, especially when it comes to the next generation.
This lapse in the story leaves very little time for us to really get to know “Boy” and “Girl” or even Malorie and Tom. The family unit they’ve formed is as tight knit as I’ve seen, but we know at some point they will become separated.
The names, “Boy” and “Girl” as the kids are referred to is intriguing because the world around them has caused them to become anonymous, another aspect of the film’s self-preservation theme. It also emotionally detaches us from caring about the characters, forcing us to focus on the danger in front of us.
We are acutely aware that even through the danger, they will prevail otherwise there’s no point in telling this particular story. I mentioned earlier though about the dual meaning of horror, that of the horror of survival.
Bird Box’s ending, though strangely compelling because of Bier’s direction, the structure of Heisserer’s story and Bullock’s acting, fell flat. Everything that should work to bring us to the film’s conclusion works against its ending.
Perhaps I’m immune to these post-apocalyptic survival stories. Perhaps I’m not hip to zombified human beings. Perhaps it’s the inner-Olympia in me, but Bird Box for all its complexities and subtleties, while interesting, missed for me.
Bird Box is playing in a limited theatrical release and is now streaming on Netflix and is rated R.