AFI Fest Review: ‘BIRD BOX’ is a soaring survivalist journey

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

BIRD BOX

Not Yet Rated, 117 minutes
Directed by: Susanne Bier
Starring: Sandra BullockTrevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Danielle Macdonald, Rosa Salazar, Machine Gun Kelly, Jacki Weaver, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Julian Edwards, Vivien Lyra Blair

Who says walking through life blindfolded isn’t beneficial? Literally being blindfolded is a technique developed by the characters in director Susanne Bier’s nail-biting thriller, BIRD BOX, to skirt gnarly danger. It even doubles as a metaphor for pummeling through insurmountable obstacles using blind courage. Based on the page-turning, best-selling novel by Josh Malerman and adapted by Academy Award-nominee Eric Heisserer (ARRIVAL), this tension-fueled, exhilarating, highly emotional experience cuts to the bone, delivering a heartrending tale of survival and a mother’s journey towards acceptance.

Malorie (Sandra Bullock, in her best role in years) has issues with becoming a mother. She’s in deep denial about her pregnancy, reluctant to even say the word “pregnant,” let alone connect with the baby growing inside her. She cracks wise to deflect from her fear of impending motherhood. It’s ironic that in five years’ time, those hidden, ferociously protective instincts will be what sustain her. But on the same day as her third trimester ultrasound, Malorie’s world falls into complete chaos. A wide-spread malevolent entity appears – and when victims stare at it, they see their worst personal fears and commit suicide. You look. You die. She happens to find refuge in a perfect Craftsman home occupied by a group of misfits, who are attempting to figure out how to survive in this terrifying dystopian landscape.

The narrative effortlessly toggles between Malorie’s past and present as she and two children, named “Boy” (Julian Edwards) and “Girl” (Vivien Lyra Blair) (which is another coping mechanism for the protagonist), travel by boat over the course of two days to a compound located far down a treacherous river. Sequences flip back and forth between the mounting danger of their wild river adventure and the experiences they’ve already endured in the house.

Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson in BIRD BOX. Courtesy of Netflix.

In a manner similar to John Carpenter’s THE THING, the filmmakers explore the group dynamic in fascinating ways. It’s just as fun to see romance blossom and friendships forged as it is to see these characters get picked off by the mysterious entity’s madness one by one. We’re given ample time to care about these people. A few of the supporting characters seemingly act as splinters of Malorie’s multi-faceted personality. Douglas’ (John Malkovich) doubts and drinking habits echo her acerbic pessimism. Charlie’s (Lil Rel Howery) knowledge speaks to her intelligence and quick wit. Olympia’s (Danielle Macdonald) tender kindness and Tom’s (Trevante Rhodes) dreamer qualities act as brilliant juxtapositions to Malorie’s darkness and angst. Even the group’s wild card, Gary (Tom Hollander), a shifty character who shows up late in the film to cause a ruckus amongst the small colony, acts as the catalyst for Malorie’s motherly instincts. Unfortunately, a few others fail to land, like the tertiary characters played by Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar and Machine Gun Kelly. Their motives are clear, but their purposes are essentially footnotes.

Bier and company bottle atmospheric tension perfectly. Sequences that involve the gang debating experimental solutions to their problems – specifically how to refill their dwindling food supply and figure out the blindfold solution – appeal to audience intellect. The characters are discovering the rules of their new world order at the same time we’re attempting to figure it out. Their experiments lead to a few gripping scenes where they logically attempt things like utilizing a video surveillance system, and later, blacking out car windows in favor of GPS sight, running over dead bodies. Tension relief humor peppers the picture in this moment. “It’s just a speed bump,” reassures Tom. How the filmmakers contextualize the invisible menace falls in line with Hitchcock’s philosophy of what’s not shown is scarier than what is, though that imagery we do see is legitimately petrifying. Occasionally Bier switches to show our heroine’s compromised, blindfolded perspective. It’s here where the sound design team’s work envelopes the viewer in Malorie’s percolating paranoia and fright. Plus, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ disquieting, distorted electronic compositions provide a foreboding, ominous soundscape.

As we’ve seen in films like PREVENGE and THE BABADOOK, some women just aren’t cut out for motherhood. The delight with BIRD BOX is that we see a complex portrait of one riddled with self-doubt, who actually is more of a mother than she realizes.

Grade: B

BIRD BOX played AFI Fest on November 12. It opens in theaters on December 13 and hits Netflix on December 21.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.

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