Bird Box can be remarkably dumb and doesn’t hold a candle to A Quiet Place, but some strong performances and legitimately tense sequences help to save it.
If Susanne Bier’s apocalyptic Netflix thriller Bird Box continued in the same manner in which it began, it would have been one of the better films of the year. In it, Sandra Bullock plays Mallory, and as the film opens she is berating two children – named dispassionately “Boy” and “Girl” – about the dangers they’re going to navigate. If they take off their blindfolds, they’ll die. If they don’t follow instructions, they’ll die. They have to navigate a river in a pitiful rowboat, through vicious rapids to a secluded commune where maybe, just maybe, they’ll find salvation from a nebulous, world-ending terror that tricks anyone who lays eyes on it into violently killing themselves. And they have to do it without looking.
Suffice it to say, Bird Box does not continue in this manner. Mere moments after this compelling setup is established, we flash back to a pregnant Mallory and her horse-loving sister (Sarah Paulson) caught in the earliest moments of the outbreak. Is “outbreak” the right word? It’s difficult to say. We’re never allowed to see the creatures that cause all this carnage, nor are we given any explanation or justification for them. They announce themselves with the rustle of leaves and the tell-tale squawking of any nearby birds – the contemporising of the canary-down-the-mine idea from which the film takes its title – and almost immediately the victims’ eyes are glazed over and they’re stabbing themselves in the neck with a pair of scissors. Still, “outbreak” feels about right.
In the chaos Mallory flees to a house stuffed with one-note archetypes played by suspiciously able supporting actors. John Malkovich is wonderful as a drunken elderly crank; Danielle Macdonald (late of Netflix’s own Dumplin’) is a nice-but-dim lady just as pregnant as Mallory (no prizes for guessing what happens there); Moonlight and The Predator’s Trevante Rhodes is the take-charge love interest; and there are minor bits for Lil Rel Howery (of Get Out and the creatively-titled Rel), Rosa Salazar and Machine Gun Kelly. None of these characters have much in the way of personality or backstory beyond their single obvious quirk, but that’s probably just as well – as is immediately made clear by how the film time-hops back and forth between flashback and the five-years-later river-rapids shenanigans, none of them are in it for the long haul.
Bird Box, then, quickly becomes a guessing game of how each character will meet their untimely end, and it is here that the film frequently excels. There are a bunch of great scenes and really clever ideas; an excursion as mundane as grocery shopping becomes a taut set-piece, and even though weird tonal shifts frequently dampen the payoff to such sequences, the build-up is often riveting.
The problem is that the rules are established so well and with such brevity in the opening scene that there’s an underlying frustration in how these house-set sequences reiterate them – especially since the screenplay by Arrival scribe Eric Heisserer doesn’t seem too concerned with establishing any concrete logistics or mythological underpinnings to explain how it all works. And as a result it sometimes just doesn’t. Where fuller characters would have picked up some of the slack, these underwritten stand-ins feel present just to shunt Bird Box to its next calamity. It all feels like too much; too many people bobbing in and out of too many ideas, and there isn’t enough movie here to contain them all. A leaner version of this film would have earned the comparisons to A Quiet Place or Don’t Breathe, but Bird Box is inferior to both because it isn’t content to just be about what it’s about, rather than be about one thing after another.
But for all the lingering questions the audience might have when the film reaches its mawkish conclusion, there’s enough here to shock and surprise that idly dismissing Bird Box would be a mistake. Bullock, here the furthest thing from America’s sweetheart, is obviously devoted to the role, and there’s enough going on around it that her effort doesn’t feel totally wasted, even if she would have been better served by more focus and less fat. Bird Box might be deprived of sense more than the senses, but it still gives you something worth seeing.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.