A stellar cast makes Netflix’s BIRD BOX a worthy addition to this year’s class of excellent horror films about families
And, its idea of “family” is one of the more progressive of the year
There are few things in American life more precious than notions of “family.” We pride ourselves on crafting loving, supportive, nurturing family units that provide for sustenance and child-rearing, often at the expense of ignoring any number of issues that affect many (most?) families, like domestic abuse, economic problems, undiagnosed mental health issues, etc. It makes sense, then, that the horror genre would seek to disturb, upend, and muddy the delusions that the American family has about itself. This year in particular, there have been a number of horror movies that double as parables about parenting, including most prominently A Quiet Place and Hereditary; Netflix’s Bird Box, which hit the streaming service this weekend, deserves to join the canon.
As Bird Box begins, we see a woman (Sandra Bullock) warning two young children that they are about to go on a trip, and if they take off their blindfolds, they will die. We watch them stumble their way through the woods to a river, climb aboard a boat, and launch themselves out onto the water. Then, we flash back five years to a pregnant Sandra Bullock, whose name is Malorie. As she and her sister (a delightful Sarah Paulson) talk about her coming to terms with the fact that she’s about to have a baby, the news warns that Russia and other European locations have been overrun by an apparent epidemic of suicidal psychosis and are devolving into riots.
Sure enough, while the sisters are leaving a visit with Malorie’s OB/GYN, the world around them explodes into utter chaos. Cars slam into each other, people run through traffic, vehicles burst into flames… and, staring up at the sky as though witnessing some eldritch horror too unspeakable to describe, people climb inside the burning cars and let their bodies be consumed by fire. It’s a thrilling sequence, chaotic and frantic and eerie, reminiscent of the best parts of The Happening, before all the evil plants and stuff.
A group of survivors, all of whom haven’t gazed upon the source of the psychosis, quickly forms inside a nearby mansion. It’s an absolutely stacked supporting cast — huddled together with Sandra Bullock in the gorgeous home are John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Lil Rel, Rosa Salazar, BD Wong, Machine Gun Kelly, and soon, Dumplin’s Danielle MacDonald, all of whom make the most of their characters and turn in excellent work. The film is based on a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman — which I haven’t read — but from this point, Bird Box feels like a Stephen King story that never was. Sure, there’s something unseeable and unknowable outside, but from here on out, our story is as much about the mini-society forming inside as it is about the supernatural shenanigans on the other side of the walls. It’s very The Mist.
At first, I wasn’t sure about the film’s device of flashing back and forth between the first days of the post-apocalypse and five years later, as Malorie and two kids travel down the river. I tend to dislike stories where flashbacks mean I already know the outcome. However, as the uneasy relationships among the mansion crew break down and their number starts to dwindle, the fact that we know only Malorie survives — and picks up another child along the way — makes for some really fantastic tension between the two timelines.
I think of horror as, basically, breaking down along two central lines — fear of seeing, and of being seen. Take your average slasher movie — most of the scares are either scares where you’re afraid of seeing (something horrific, like a violent stabbing, or of stumbling across the mutilated body of your fellow camp counselor), or you’re afraid of being seen (by the killer, so that they can then violently stab you). Bird Box is very firmly in the “fear of seeing” camp — our characters know that, if they lay eyes on whatever it is that killed the world, they will die. Wrapped up in this is the related fear, situated in the audience, of being unable to see — we spend much of the movie looking through barriers, like blindfolds or newspaper-plastered windows, knowing that something is there, but being denied the release of finally moving to the fear of seeing whatever it is that’s so frightening it’ll kill you.
On the surface, Bird Box most closely resembles this year’s A Quiet Place; just about every review of Bird Box mentions the superficial similarity — both are about movies where a certain sense will kill you! — without breaking down that the horror functions in the opposite direction. That film is also about a family surviving in a post-apocalypse, theirs overrun by creatures that will attack and destroy if they hear any sound. They are thus afraid of being heard and subsequently “being seen” by the creatures. It’s a horror movie about keeping as still and quiet as possible, of shrinking yourself into nonexistence so as not to disturb the world, and all the resulting tension that comes from that.
Bird Box inverts this — here, we’re afraid of seeing. The characters don’t have to be silent or slow; they are in almost constant motion, whether traveling down the racing river, pacing the floors of the mansion, or figuring out a way to drive blind to get supplies from a nearby grocery store. It’s the horror of mankind turning on itself during a societal breakdown, and of confronting the unspeakable horror of the great beyond, as much as it is about the “creatures.”
In addition, while A Quiet Place absolutely deserves credit for having the daughter’s hearing impairment be a strength rather than a weakness — when the apocalypse hits, the family already knows sign language and can therefore adapt to survival without speaking much easier than most — its depiction of a family is still extremely “traditional.” Read: white and heterosexual. The boy is trained in rugged survival with his father while the girl stays at home helping their pregnant mother. Yes, some of this gets subverted by the end, but on the whole, while I loved it, it’s a rather regressive movie in its politics. (Richard Brody said this all in the New Yorker better than I could ever).
The family unit in Bird Box is different. Sandra Bullock begins the movie as a single pregnant woman; we don’t really get the sense that there’s an absent man in her life, just that she’s a woman who is pregnant. In the later timeline, we see that she is taking two children down the river, and we learn right away in the “before” timeline that she’s not having twins. Sure enough, about halfway through the movie, we see her promise to care for the child of Olympia (Danielle MacDonald), “if anything happens.” Something of course happens, and Malorie commits to raising the children along with Trevante Rhodes’ character Tom. Malorie is resistant to motherhood to the point where she doesn’t even give the children names, calling them “Boy” and “Girl” instead (which, if we’re being honest, may have worked better as a literary device than it does on screen, where we hear it being spoken aloud), but she does what she needs to do anyway.
Unlike A Quiet Place, which delights in returning the Man and Wife to the wilderness to stoically raise their 2.5 children to be able to live off the land and survive among the elements, the family in Bird Box is a makeshift one, born of necessity — here, an interracial couple raises one kid that is only technically hers and another kid that doesn’t technically belong to either of them. But they’re still a family, the four of them still a unit, still occasionally loving and always nurturing and above all else preparing the children for the world. Sure, this world has beings that will turn you insane if you look at them, but all families face challenges, don’t they?