'Bird Box' Is The Netflix Version Of 'A Quiet Place'
An amazingly tense and sparse character drama, 'Bird Box' doesn't stick the landing but keeps you intrigued.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Netflix's Bird Box is definitely following in some well-trod footsteps. Earlier this year director John Krasinski came out with A Quiet Place, a horror feature that played on how civilization would survive without one of the five senses. His story was nothing new ⏤ there have been several movies about the absence of senses and disabled narratives do this frequently ⏤ but the blending of horror and tension in A Quiet Place was just what audiences needed.
Susanne Bier's Bird Box is so similar that it can be considered a direct imitation. We meet Mallory (Sandra Bullock), pregnant with a child she isn't particularly bonded to. When the world collapses after the arrival of creatures who compel people to kill themselves upon sight, Mallory finds herself holed up with a group of strangers, including another pregnant woman. As the various characters are picked off one-by-one, Mallory is left in the care of both children, struggling to find a way to protect them.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer looks to have been influenced by Stephen King, though the film is an adaptation of Josh Malerman's novel of the same name. Like King's The Mist, there's a somberness to the film starting immediately with Mallory herself. Bullock is deadpan and apathetic to her life, a painter who, according to her sister (played by Sarah Paulson), willingly ignores things ⏤ including her pregnancy ⏤ in the hopes they'll go away. When people start killing themselves it plays as Mallory's depression writ large. The unseen entities either play off people's worst nightmares or saddest regrets, and Mallory's resistance of looking at them is almost an active antagonism to her own feelings.
Bird Box takes its time, leaving the audience to question what exactly the endgame is. Mallory is on her own in a house filled with several individuals, all of whom show their personalities through their reactions to the situation at hand; Douglas (John Malkovich) is the house's resident jerk, Olympia (Danielle Macdonald) the sweetnatured mom-to-be, Charlie (Lil Rel Howery) the conspiracy theorist. Mallory bonds with Tom (Trevante Rhodes), the one man hoping to carve some semblance of life out of this horrific situation. The movie builds an eventual relationship between Tom and Mallory that not bombastic, but tempered and sweet.
The removal of a key sense like sight forces the script to become exceedingly creative with how characters find methods of survival. Blindfolds are essential, but a trip to the grocery store forces the group to black out the windows and drive blind, with little more than the GPS to guide them. In a movie similar to old radio dramas, the grocery store trip culminates with a creature attacking the car. The camera remains in the car, close to the actors' faces as they react to an entity they cannot see, but if they look at it will certainly cause their demise. You can easily close your eyes and hear the terror in their voices.
Intermingled with these glimpses at Mallory's past is her present, as she navigates the river with two children to find safety. Intensity is the word with Bird Box, and while the house situation is fraught with tension as strangers arrive with questionable intentions, the scenes in the woods and on the river are panic inducing. Because the children and Mallory cannot see they are forced to navigate rapids, encounter strangers, and wander in the woods with creatures searching for them at every turn. The child actors, particularly Vivien Lyra Blair, are incredibly compelling. Blair, outside of being adorable, is continuously putting herself in blindfolded peril.
There are issues that end up ruining the overall product, and several of these elements showed up in Heisserer's previous script for the sci-fi feature, Arrival. Like that film, both deal with ambivalent women struggling to understand (and eventually accept) motherhood through a world-changing event. Bullock's performance is magnetic, but it does make you cringe that her whole conceit is learning to love being a mommy. The climax also utilizes disability in a way that frustrates. Unlike A Quiet Place, where the need for sign language would make sense regardless of a character being disabled, Bird Box trots out blindness in a manner that comes off as humorous or a fun gimmick. It's sloppy and, coming right in the final frames, plays like disabled exploitation.
Finale aside, Bird Box is a taut thriller that keeps you hooked. By avoiding big scares and relying on the absence of a crucial sense, the actors and story take a quiet, contemplative look heavy on tension. Sandra Bullock and Trevante Rhodes like an excellent cast. It may feel derivative of other movies, but a great substitute can do a lot on its own.