Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, 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.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Director Suzanne Bier’s psychological thriller BIRD BOX shows a portrait of motherhood unlike any other we’ve seen on screen before. The female-centered film revolves around Malorie (Sandra Bullock), a woman in a transitional phase in her life when the apocalypse hits. She’s pregnant, lonely and reluctant to take on the demanding responsibilities of someone reliant on her for survival. Yet she’s forced into this role and has to navigate it literally and figuratively blindfolded.
The exhilarating, clever narrative flashes back and forward, not solely showing her and her two young charges’ present journey, fleeing danger via treacherous rapids, but also what happened during the five years’ time that made her the person who she currently is.
Bullock, during the Los Angeles press conference, said that she connected to the role because this is an empowering side of motherhood rarely shown on screen.
To me, as a mother, as a woman and human being, men and women alike, when we’re forced to do things we don’t like, deal with things that are tragic, horrific or horrible, it brings out a side of ourselves that doesn’t necessarily get tapped into. Women especially haven’t been shown that side on film.
As a mother, I know how fearful I am and what I would do for my children. Malorie made sense to me. Wouldn’t you do anything in your power to protect your child? This is a reluctant mother and she was willing to go this far.
She was also attracted to the relationship dynamics of the ragtag group that forms, thrust together to overcome the common goal of surviving the suicide-inducing entity now plaguing the planet.
It’s a story about loving each other. What’s the right way to love each other? I wanted a great man – a great father, a great lover, a great family – to be shown on film and we don’t see that enough. We need to be inspired by it.
One of those men in the hideout is Tom (Trevante Rhodes), a kind-hearted war vet and former sniper. Bullock was eager to cast Rhodes as she felt he embodied the spirit of the role completely.
You get to experience a glorious man. That’s the man, that’s the father I would want my children to have. That’s the kind of representation that exists in a lot of places, but we just don’t see it in films. And here it was written. It’s a human being who hears you, respects you and you felt his connection to the ground and the greater. The talent was already there.
She, along with Bier, thought the love story was crucial to their individual survival.
I wanted more of a love story. Suzanne wanted more of a love story. I miss love stories. It’s the movies. You want your leading man to be the leading man you want to ride off into the sunset with, but you also want that leading man to go, ‘I trust you with my children.’ This is the story I want to tell – and I want this human being to be my ride or die in this process. It’s rare when you get that.
Bier and screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s innate instincts are what make the character relationships and their ensuing perilous journey work brilliantly. Bullock said of working with Bier,
Suzanne is almost always right. She’s always spot on. The things that Suzanne Bier does, you feel human beings connecting in an intimate way that I don’t think you see much in American cinema where it gets exciting to watch. You just felt drained and happy at the end of the day because you had someone that allowed you to experiment and try everything. She cast an ensemble to support you and make you feel brave.
It’s that level of trust that led Bullock during the large portions of the film where she had to perform blindfolded.
We had an extraordinary coach who’s not sighted. What he gave us was the tools and the tricks that they use – the cane, the clicking, make a sound, shuffle your feet, hear what’s close – you can hear that and feel it. By the time we got on set,you’d navigate the scene. We had an amazing steady-cam operator and his job was just to get out of our way should we switch directions, which happened a lot. And Suzanne had just let it go. I said, ‘If I fall, let it happen. If I hit something, let it happen, unless I stop it.’ I only stopped it once – when I drew blood.
Bullock stated that she was “anxious and crabby” throughout filming, but for good reason.
Because I’m a control freak. when I was blindfolded, I didn’t have the ability to control things. With this cast you had to trust and had to rely on the fact that I couldn’t communicate to Tre when something was wrong. I hoped he sensed it and would figure it out. Because Suzanne kept us all holed up in that house, by design, we became in tune with everyone else and what they needed. Very protective over each other’s journey and space.
BIRD BOX taps into the universalities within all of us – men and women alike. According to Bullock, there’s subtle insights into human behavior we can apply to roles in our daily lives.
We need to change our dialogue and do better when it comes to talking about kids and family and hope and loving each other. This was one giant metaphor. That river is motherhood! I experience it every morning. This morning, I wasn’t a great mom. I failed and I had grief over my failure when I was coming to work when all I wanted to do was take my daughter to school and go, ‘Okay. Gimme a do-over. I didn’t do well this morning.’ Everyone is coming away with a different metaphor with this film, Eric wrote things that make everyone feel something different during that nail-biting journey. If you can get those two worlds together, that’s a treat.
BIRD BOX is now playing in exclusive limited theatrical engagements in Los Angeles, New York,San Francisco, and London. It will be released globally on Netflix on December 21 and will have an expanded theatrical release in additional theaters in the U.S., and throughout Europe. Read our review here.