Dir: Susanne Bier
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the novel by Josh Malerman
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards, John Malkovich, Tom Hollander, Danielle Macdonald, Trevante Rhodes, Lil Rel Howery, B. D. Wong, Sarah Paulson
124 mins, USA 2018
Watched by Sarah, on Netflix
Had I been watching this in the cinema with Ismay, I would have been clutching her arm throughout, and doubtless embarrassing her with loud gasps and cries of fear and horror: truly edge-of-the-seat stuff … pretty damn scary even at home with the lights on, Pippin snoozing in front of the fire and Snuffkin curled up on her footstool.
I’m not going to say what happens (or not much) because the film is full of surprises – one surprise after another, really – but it begins with something that makes people kill themselves (in pretty nasty ways) within seconds of seeing it. Soon there aren’t very many people left. Those that are left have to wear blindfolds when they’re outside. And then there are the others …
The narrative cuts between immediately after the catastrophe, and five years later. Immediately after, we are watching a handful of survivors holed up together in a house; five years later we are watching one woman, Malorie, played by the always wonderful Sandra Bullock, trying to get to safety with two small children, rowing blindfold down a river with them, towards the unknown.
Malorie’s own backstory is sketched in lightly, economically: it gives reasons for her emotional distance, her independence, her alertness to what is happening around her. She notices, early on, that birds are sensitive to the presence of whatever it is that drives people to kill themselves. You’ll understand why the film is called Bird Box when you watch it.
How refreshing that in a film full of dread and potential violence the women characters are not singled out by their gender and threatened with sexual violence. In fact in the beleaguered house everyone is made equal because everyone is equally threatened by what may (or is likely to) happen. The acting is uniformly excellent: John Malkovich (being John Malkovich) as the clever, embittered Douglas, Tom Hollander as the little bit surprising Gary, Danielle Macdonald as Olympia, the other pregnant woman, Trevante Rhodes as kind and competent ex-Iraqi vet Tom. All the others are equally good.
In the river sequences especially, the director, Susanne Bier, uses close-ups of faces – of Malorie and the two children (Vivien Lyra Blair and Julian Edwards) blindfolded or huddled together beneath a blanket – to powerful effect. These shots are juxtaposed with long-distance aerial shots of the beautiful, sinister, mist-enshrouded grey-green river with the boat like a tiny insect on the surface.
OK, it’s a post-apocalyptic horror film, with many of the tropes of such films (have I mentioned the murderous psychos with the mad staring eyes? the doomy (excellent) soundtrack?), but it’s something else too: the river sequences are both terrifying and beautiful – fragile humans in a huge and hostile landscape – and the scenes set five years earlier capture social behaviour with wryness and at times a tender comedy. The film also, I think, raises questions about family and biological and non-biological motherhood – as a number of films are doing these days, it seems: I’m thinking of recent releases such as Shoplifters and Roma (sort of). And in one brief scene I was reminded too of Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch, when the little girl – Malorie won’t name the children: she calls them Girl and Boy – is dragged backwards along the ground by a rope.
I found the ending entirely satisfactory.