The horror genre goes through phases, where certain tropes are in and others are out. In 2018, the family-focused horror/drama is in. Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box” aims to join the ranks of “A Quiet Place” and “Hereditary” among the year’s noteworthy entries.
Sandra Bullock stars as Malorie, a painter who tries her best to ignore the fact that she is about to become a single mother. Her sister, Jess (Sarah Paulson), arrives to take Malorie to an OB appointment. Their initial conversation reveals a few things. First, the issues both sisters have long had with their parents and which Malorie is terrified of perpetuating; and second, that a strange phenomenon has led to mass suicides in Russia and throughout Europe. That phenomenon jumps across the ocean in a sudden, startling way while the two sisters meet with the doctor.
Everything escalates quickly and, without ever reaching home, Malorie finds herself among a band of survivors holed up in a house to hide from unseen creatures. This sequence of events is contrasted by scenes from five years later. Malorie and two children, known only as Boy and Girl, travel together down a treacherous river in hope of salvation.
Sandra Bullock has long been a welcome presence in Hollywood. Well before she was a star, she stood out in small films like “The Thing Called Love,” before selling out theaters with big budget blockbusters. For “Bird Box,” she brings many of the things she has done well with other characters. Traits like the resourcefulness she honed in “Gravity,” which earned her another Academy Award nomination. Or action in the face of fear like her breakthrough role in “Speed” in 1994. And biting wit that is not unlike her humor in films like “The Heat,” also from 2013. Malorie may feel like a character we have seen before, but she is brought to life in ways that might have felt flat if the performance came from any other actress. Her work alone is worth viewing this film.
Joining Bullock is a collection of Horror Movie Survivors. Among them are homeowner Greg (BD Wong) and his litigious neighbor, Douglas (John Malkovich). Others include Rosa Salazar (“The Kindergarten Teacher”), Machine Gun Kelly (credited as Colson Baker in “Viral” and “Nerve”), and Jacki Weaver (“Widows”). A few characters provide more depth and expand the world. Danielle Macdonald (“Patti Cake$”) is sweet and well-meaning. And Tom Hollander (“A Private War”) is Gary, whose late arrival sews seeds of discord in the group.
Each of these characters serves their purpose, trying not to fall into the trap of every horror movie ensemble. Malkovich gets to be the cantankerous old man who wants to shut out the world and drink until the end comes. And that is balanced – for better and for worse – by Macdonald’s kindhearted Olympia who, like Malorie, is weeks away from giving birth. Each has a part to play in the group’s overall survival or doom.
But if there are standouts, they are Trevante Rhodes and LilRel Howery. Howery is affable grocery store clerk Charlie. His humor here is more toned down than it was in “Get Out,” but is still used in exactly the right ways. Rhodes is quiet, attentive Tom, a military veteran whose sole focus is keeping everyone safe. His military training gives him the tools and temperament for some of the challenges they face, and Rhodes is a perfect leading man.
Susanne Bier has a strong background in dramatic films, “Things We Lost in the Fire” and “In a Better World,” among others. She won the Emmy for directing limited series “The Night Manager” in 2016. While that series was more of a mystery, she showed her prowess at developing tension. Those skills are on full display with “Bird Box,” as she takes care never to reveal too much at any one time. She builds suspense in the house by slowly revealing what each person is up to when it matters. Malorie’s river journey isn’t always exactly what it seems either. Bier withholds revelations about character motivations until the right moments. And she tosses breadcrumbs in shifting from present to past, wondering how Malorie ended up alone with two children.
Another strength to this monster movie is that the supposed monsters are never seen. The audience can usually conjure up something more terrifying than anything creature creators can dream up. And Bier, wisely, trusts the audience to imagine.
There are some issues with “Bird Box,” primarily in terms of pacing. While the tension is appropriately amped, there are times when the film starts to feel long. Some scenes could easily be pared down without sacrificing anything to the overall story.
The luscious cinematography from Salvatore Totino and an intense score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross bring it to a boil It shares so many things in common with “A Quiet Place” that one can’t help but wonder how it might have done with a real theatrical run. Bier provides an atmospheric horror film that blends in drama and doesn’t give up all the answers, making this a good choice for a night in.