Movie Review: Horror/Suspense – Bird Box
Directed by Susanne Bier
Written by Eric Heisserer
Starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, and Sarah Paulson
In a little over a week and a half, Bird Box, the new horror thriller from Netflix, has taken the internet by storm with a record 45 million plus views its first week alone, according to unverified statistics from the streaming network itself, as well as a ubiquitous number of memes, Tweets and posts. (I admit I’ve Tweeted a few of my own). That’s somewhat of a surprise given that the movie seemed, to me at least, to come out of nowhere. But the bigger surprise is that it manages to generate real thrills given that its very narrative structure reveals vital, suspense-killing information almost from the beginning.
The film begins with Malorie (Sandra Bullock) harshly instructing her two children, named simply Boy and Girl, about a boat trip they will soon take down the river. It will be dangerous they are told. They will be required to travel through the rapids. Most peculiarly, they are warned, with all the protective ferocity of a mama grizzly, that under no circumstances are they to remove their blindfolds. Malorie takes three birds from their cage and puts them in a box of leaves and the three embark on their treacherous journey down the majestic and imposingly photographed river.
Flash back five years to the defiantly single and pregnant Malorie and her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson, looking more like Kristin Wiig’s identical twin than ever). Malorie, a painter, is as unimpressed by her pregnancy as she is with TV news reports about a wave of mass suicides occurring in Russia and other parts of Europe. The two sisters drive to the obstetrician, but when leaving the hospital, Malorie sees a young woman beating her blood covered head against a glass door. The two hurry past her, but on the way home, chaos erupts as cars crash purposely into one another and Jessica, babbling incoherently, steers their vehicle into a parked car in one of those ridiculous Hollywood crashes where automobiles roll over and explode in balls of fire. (Driving would be so much more interesting if these kinds of wrecks happened with the same frequency in real life that they happen in the movies).
Miraculously, both women survive with minimal injuries, but Jessica, speaking to her dead mother, walks in front of a speeding trash truck to be bloodily flattened like a dragonfly on a windshield, in a brief, but brilliantly executed bit of special effects gore. Horrified, Malorie struggles to find help as vehicles crash, fires burn, and people scatter in panic. An old woman from a nearby house struggles to save her, but she too succumbs to the suicidal fever. Malorie eventually makes it to the house where she finds herself trapped inside with a disparate group of strangers: The gay house owner whose husband is away (B.D. Wong), the bitter old neighbor with a gun whose wife died trying to save Malorie (John Malkovich), the hot black guy (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes), the chubby black guy (Lil Rel Howery), who’s written an apocalyptic sci-fi novel which he inexplicably has with him in manuscript form, the quiet old woman (Jacki Weaver of Silver Linings Playbook), the horny young couple (Rosa Salazar and Colson Baker aka rapper Machine Gun Kelly), and later, the chubby pregnant white girl Olympia (a memorable Danielle Macdonald), all of whom, have sought refuge in the house from the chaos outside. The entity or whatever it is, we soon learn, can only affect you if you look at it. Thus the crew remain inside, windows covered with newspaper, and proceed, naturally, to argue, because, of course.
The screenplay for the film was written by Eric Heisserer from the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman. It has obvious similarities to M. Night Shalaman’s much despised The Happening, also about mass suicides, and acts as an interesting companion piece to this year’s horror classic A Quite Place in which sound, not sight, was the source of fear. But the idea of a group of strangers, some with hostile feelings toward each other, trapped together inside a small area while an evil force lurks outside, has been the fodder for endless horror films including several by Stephen King, whose work this film most reminds me of. And the film stifles much of its suspense by telling its main story of the trapped survivors as a flashback from Malorie and her children’s trip down the river, in effect, telling us who will survive and who won’t in the film’s opening scenes. One could argue that even with a more conventional structure it would have been easy to surmise that most of the cast would get knocked off. Such is the predictable nature of most horror films, but it would surely have increased the tension in a film that, at two hours, is already overlong.
As it is, the film does have its scary moments, mostly due to an intriguing twist later in the film involving survivors who are immune to the entity’s effects, and to the creepy ambiance generated by director Susanne Bier. Bier, who directed the Oscar winning 2010 Danish thriller In a Better World, has a gift when it comes to scaring without actually showing anything. This is especially true when the unseen entity flies overhead, stirring up leaves in a great wind, casting an ominous shadow on the ground underneath, and causing a commotion among the birds (They act as a warning of the entity’s presence and are the reason for Malorie’s taking them on the river). The blindfolded trip down the river itself is authentically suspenseful and harrowingly filmed. But Bier’s smartest touch is in not showing the entity itself, a smart creative choice that adds to the horror.
The cast is generally excellent, particularly Bullock who’s a perfect fit for the strong willed Malorie. She’s a strong female character who still manages to be feminine and, dare I say it, vulnerable. But typical of horror films, the intimate moments between the characters tend to ring false. There are however, three notable exceptions. There’s a nice scene between the two pregnant women midway through the film that resonates emotionally later on. Bullock and Rhodes manage to stir up some viable and sexy romantic chemistry late in the film. And there’s some intriguing tension between Malorie and Girl near the end that could have been developed further. But much of the character interplay is predictable and banal. The film merely pretends to be about people. It’s really about mood and scares and it does work on that level. Slightly above average from the usual fray of high-concept horror movies, and with a gore level thankfully kept to a minimum, Bird Box comes through. But when the leaves finally settle, it’s nothing to write home to your dead mother about.