Bird Box (available on Netflix) is now on my short list of favorite horror movies. I have not read the book (with the same name), but it is on my to-be-read list as well. Director Susanne Bier and screenplay writer Eric Heisserer do a fine job of translating author Josh Malerman’s work to the screen. Between them and the wonderful cast and crew, they have created a movie with characters we care about, suspense and horror woven throughout the story, and a monster that is never seen yet its presence is continually felt. There are a few spoilers ahead in this review, but I will keep them to a minimum.
Stephen King described three emotions that are key to horror stories: terror (when there may be a monster but we’re not sure), horror (when we realize that there really is a monster) and revulsion (when we see the monster and are grossed out at the sight). Bird Box keeps us stuck in suspense, terror and horror and rarely lets go.
The movie follows Sandra Bullock’s character, Malorie, in two time frames: when the invasion starts, and five years afterward when Malorie takes two children on a river journey. While this helps build tension (What happened to all those people at the beginning? Why is Malorie alone with two children on the river?), it also reduces some of the suspense. We know she ends up caring for two children, and its pretty clear near the beginning who’s kids they are. But the beginning entices us – what could drive Malorie and the children to blindfold themselves and get in a boat? We quickly find out. The girl carries a trio of birds in a shoebox, because birds can sense the danger. Thus, the movie’s title.
This is a monster movie. As such, it is only as good at its monster, and this one is a doozy. It reminds me of something out of a H.P. Lovecraft story. Often his creatures are nameless, indescribable horrors, which can be difficult to bring to the screen. Eventually, the heroes must confront the monster, and so we the audience must see the monster as well. When a Lovecraft story is brought to film, the monster is sometimes well portrayed, but sometimes it simply looks like a person in makeup. In this movie, the audience never sees the demons (or whatever it or they are), but the characters do. Upon seeing the demons, their eyes change, and their altered perception drives most to immediate suicide.
The director does an amazing job of giving us an unseen monster that has menace and intent. The demons have a real, physical presence. They are preceded by a breeze and a shadow, and make their presence known by mimicking voices, and actual physical pushing around. This is no strange effect of nature, no mysterious “something in the air.” There is evil intent here. At one point, we see sketches of a C’thulu-looking creature and other nightmarish images. We are led to believe that these images are what people are actually perceiving, or at least what one person ‘saw’. There is no explanation, no concrete reason for what is happening. We never get a moment of “oh, that’s what it is, that’s where it came from.” This monster remains truly nameless.
There are many themes here, including the dynamic between Malorie and her daughter. But the one that really got me was the juxtaposition of faith, and the fear of the unknown. This story really plays on that fear. Fear of the unknown is one of the most universal of fears, and one we face every day. We don’t know what is outside our door, what tomorrow will bring, or even who people truly are. Simply living is an act of faith that we often take for granted. Faith does not come easily to Malorie, and yet it may be the only weapon she has.
The ending of the book was more depressing compared to the movie’s, so I’ve heard. If you like hopeful endings, this movie has one. There is no twist, though, no sudden revelation that solves all the mysteries. In the end, the dangerous unknown stills lurks outside, just as it does every day in real life.
If you watch horror movies for a large body count and plenty of gore, there’s not much here for you. If you enjoy suspense, creepiness, faith in the face of tragedy and the ultimate triumph of kindness and love, you’ll enjoy this movie as much as I did.