When I sat down to watch BIRD BOX for my New Year’s Day laziness after it came recommended to me by a co-worker, I was pretty happy to find out that Sandra Bullock was in it, having missed most of the initial buzz about it. Always having been a fan of her lighter stuff like THE HEAT and MISS CONGENIALITY, I knew that she had the option to-and the acting chops for-pulling off a more dramatic film, with films like GRAVITY and THE BLIND SIDE. I knew that I couldn’t pass up a female-directed film either, and decorated Danish director Susanne Bier (of AFTER THE WEDDING and THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE fame) was no slouch with her many awards won. I was definitely excited to see BIRD BOX, after falling in love with THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE (Benicio Del Toro, Halle Berry, David Duchovny) when I saw it in university. Bier has always given remarkable ability and agency to not only her characters played by adult
I haven’t read the book BIRD BOX, so I’ll only comment on how I found the movie. Apart from a few cringe-worthy moments about survival, I found the movie not just tolerable, but enjoyable. BIRD BOX only works if you put yourself in the moment and enjoy it, and once I did, I found many things to like about it. It was clear to me that Sandra Bullock was invested in a story of hope, rather than loss.
BIRD BOX begins with a pregnant Sandra Bullock playing the character Malorie, her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson, OCEAN’S EIGHT) encouraging a somewhat depressed but very independent Malorie to eat healthily, live well, and helping her get to her appointments like ultrasounds on time. In the background on TV and in the streets around the world, a menace is growing in the population. A strange, unseen phenomenon, catches the attention of any person and inflicts in their minds a strange desire to kill themselves. The only way Sandra Bullock escapes it is by looking away at the wrong moment, or the right one, as it turns out.
Malorie encounters a colorful group of survivors holed up in an enormous home, and once they determine she is safe in the initial aftermath, she is allowed to stay with them. The group determines that “looking” at the “monster” that makes people kill themselves is unsafe. If they go outside of their homes where the windows are blocked up, they must wear a blindfold. Rather than become agoraphobes, they then realize that the only way they can survive is by getting more food. The only way they can do that is by leaving the house, with blindfolds on. Just as it takes the audience a bit to get accustomed to this idea and more, so too does it take a bit for the group to get used to their new way of life. And there are other forces at work while the suicide monster is seeking the next victim.
Did I like every character who was in BIRD BOX? No, and that was what made it interesting. Some characters were unremarkable in actions but not in appearance, and with every throb of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, I began to worry which one was actually infected. The sweet little old lady? The well-dressed British guy? The buff cop? Trevante Rhodes (THE PREDATOR) as Tom, the first person to befriend Malorie when she discovers the apocalypse, is sweet and kind, and his genuine nature is a nice contrast to Sandra Bullock’s acerbic wit and callous need for survival. It’s also a slight change from his gun-toting character Nebraska in THE PREDATOR.
John Malkovich (BURN AFTER READING) is always a treat to watch as the “asshole” of the movie, Douglas, taking verbal cheap shots at the pregnant women and never breaking character, surviving on his own terms. With Olympia’s character (Danielle MacDonald, DUMPLIN’), I started to ask myself questions about the pregnant women of the movie, an idea that I wish had been more explained. Olympia’s character is lovely, all sweetness and light, with her talking over baby names with Malorie when I suddenly realized the names are Disney princesses. And a great coda to the film is the doctor who attends Malorie, Dr. Lapham, played by Parminder Nagra (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM).
While BIRD BOX does take some predictable turns as a sci-fi horror flick, it does take risks and asks the audience for trust as it leads to the end. The characters are smart. Although some of them behave predictably bad for a horror movie, I was less left with the impression that it was because characters in horror movies tend to be dumb, a common idea that gets overused in many films. This movie treats its survival-minded characters with compassion, allowing that many characters wouldn’t just lose their minds in a post-apocalyptic world.
At the beginning of the movie when the characters are introduced, there is a bit of talk about pregnant women and how much of an affinity they have for their young. Malorie downplays hers a great deal, as a survival mechanism. She doesn’t want to lose anyone that she is close to. We see this in her hesitation to get close to people and form connections with them. It was an interesting idea that I felt was tied to the suicide monster somehow that I wanted to see explored more.
When it gets away from group survival mode and gets into Sandra Bullock and her kids trying to move through the world blindfolded, the movie is incredibly absorbing. Time transitions run through this movie, and Bier does these with ease, something she was famous for in THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE. The first person point-of-view camera and some tossed up tree leaves representing an unseen monster is a great horror/thriller camerawork gag that never loses appeal with me, and the great sets definitely reminded me of ANNIHILATION up to a point. The greatest part was not seeing the monster, and with that fearless concept I think BIRD BOX championed where other recent horror movies could not.
This movie fared well with the “senses lost” concept, an idea that reminded me resoundingly of A QUIET PLACE, a fantastic horror survival movie that thrived when the monsters weren’t present, but the actors were compelled to lay some real groundwork with good characterization and strong connections with the audience. This was something lacking a bit in BIRD BOX. There were so many characters to keep track of, I didn’t get a chance to know them all and form connections with them.
Sandra Bullock is phenomenal, and with her sight mostly lost in many scenes, she really shines as a physical actor. In scenes when she’s quietly looting abandoned houses by herself while tied to a string, and she looks up and stops moving, I get a chill, because she’s either seen something and it’s game over, or she’s heard something. Some fantastic explorations with auditory scares definitely kept me engaged toward the end. Rather than going for jump scares, I liked that the scares were more about willing the characters away from the edge. This movie was further proof that Sandra Bullock can do whatever kind of movie she wants. I will be there to watch it.