The horror genre has frequently brought about the boldest ideas and concepts in cinema today; largely thanks to small budgets filmmakers able to risk more with their projects. We had a groundbreaking horror film earlier last year with The Quiet Place that played with the human senses (in that film particularly sound), in Bird Box director Susanne Bier chooses to play with another one of our senses: sight.
Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic thriller/horror film where the world has been decimated by mass suicides. The reason? Mysterious creatures that if looked upon make you kill yourself. We follow Mallory (Sandra Bullock) in two different points in time, once when the apocalypse is starting in her hometown of Sacramento, and five years later when we see her alone with two children named Boy and Girl (Julian Edwards and Vivien Lyra Blair) traveling the wild.
The film is expertly managed by Bier who is able to wring about a constant thread of tension that grips at your gut from the first minutes. The haunting score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor might not be something to listen to by itself, but when combined with the scenes in the film it is enough to make your stomach churn. Bier had previously helmed the fabulous mini-series The Night Manager, but while that project had a slow-building tension, Bird Box turns it up quickly manages to keep you glued to the screen for its entire two hours.
Having the horror concept be something you can’t see provides ripe material to play with viewers and their expectations. As many smart horror movies will do, they will not show us the monster or villain, allowing our imaginations to do the work and thus making the concept all the more terrifying. In Bird Box there is an expert teasing to viewers, by having scenes involving a close-up conversation suddenly cut to a wide shot, something done only to show a bigger aspect of action, and thus viewers unconsciously are on edge thinking that something will come bursting through a door or wall. There are tense tracking shots too, as the camera moves down hallways and peers around corners, you almost want to cover your eyes, afraid the monsters will have an effect on you too.
Bullock gives a gripping performance not only as a freaked out woman, but as a reluctant mother as well. In the first scenes before the world goes up in flames, we see that Mallory isn’t very keen on having a child (despite being pregnant) and that sense of reluctant motherhood proves to be an arc of discovery for her. The small supporting roles are well written as well, providing enough depth and distinction with scattered scenes; there are certain standouts like a great John Malkovich playing a rude survivor, or Trevante Rhodes playing a caring and optimistic romantic interest.
In the end, however, as much as such a great concept was being built up, the finale plays out in a very Hollywood-y way, playing it very safe. The resolution seems so incongruous with the savagery and darkness of the rest of the film, you are expecting a twist or betrayal but instead the story and our characters fade into the credits. Having done the hardest job of sustaining such a plot until the end, the characters and filmmakers demanded a more robust resolution. Nevertheless, Bird Box is a very entertaining thriller/horror that will make the journey worth it, even if the destination is a bit of a let down.