MOVIE OF THE WEEK December 21, 2018: BIRD BOX

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motw logo 1-35Atmospheric and tense, Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box” is both a post-apocalyptic horror/thriller story and a character study. Anchored by Sandra Bullock’s star performance, the film explores what happens after the majority of the world’s population is struck down by an affliction that makes them see visions so nightmarish that they’re driven to kill themselves as quickly as possible.

It’s implied that the horrible images are caused by mysterious monsters/”things,” but the entities are never shown — which ties in neatly to the film’s central conceit: If you look, you die. Like “A Quiet Place,” much of “Bird Box”‘s tension is wrapped up in the fact that it deprives its characters of something most people take for granted; here, instead of the ability to speak/make noise, it’s sight. And watching characters stumble around in blindfolds while trying to negotiate everything from simply walking outside to navigating whitewater rapids makes for some edge-of-your-seat moments.

Many of those moments include children in peril (which will rule the film out for a subset of viewers), since Bullock’s character, Malorie, is desperately trying to get herself and two kids to safety, which she’s been told lies two days’ journey down the capricious river. How Malorie ended up shepherding the children — whom she calls Girl and Boy — is told via flashbacks to five years earlier, when the entities arrived and the mass suicides began. A then-very-pregnant Malorie avoids death by seeking refuge inside a house full of strangers who quickly become allies (and more): There’s cynical, suspicious Douglas (John Malkovich); strong, reliable Tom (Trevante Rhodes); nervous Olympia (Danielle Macdonald); capable Cheryl (Jacki Weaver); and others. As the unlikely group learns how to survive, they must decide whom to trust and what to do as food and other supplies run low.

Based on Josh Malerman’s novel, Eric Heisserer’s script doesn’t answer every question viewers are sure to have about Malorie’s post-entity life — or, for that matter, about the entities themselves. But the taut pacing and overall tension keep you invested. It’s hard not to wonder what you might do if you found yourself in a similar situation. Or what you might see if you dared to look. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Nikki Baughan Susanne Bier is a filmmaker with an innate ability to mine the painful truths of the human experience in a way that is both deeply intimate and profoundly universal. And so it is with Bird Box, her first foray into genre filmmaking, that distills the daunting responsibility of parenthood into one woman’s seeming impossible journey of survival in a world overrun by unseeable monsters. Read full review.

MaryAnn Johanson I love Susanne Bier’s movies for their conscious humanity, and that’s the quality that separates this from many similar movies about the end of the world and the collapse of civilization. Bier and her terrific cast approach the breakdown of trust and kindness with a sorrow and a despair that we don’t usually see in horror movies — which is essentially what this is. The unseen monsters never feel like a cheat or a trick that the film is pulling on us, nor do they feel like nothing more than a metaphor (though of course they do work on that level, too). The impact the monsters have on the people here makes them real: not the horrible things the monsters somehow inspire the people to do to themselves, but the what their presence is doing to those who are surviving them. At the center of the film, Sandra Bullock is especially moving as someone trying to protect herself by seemingly overtly distancing herself from other people even as she knows that that’s impossible, and that survival is more than merely physical.

Loren King There are haunting, creepy, edge of the seat moments in Bird Box, and Sandra Bullock holds it together as a reluctant mother turned action hero. She’s in full survivor mode here, battling unseen enemies from behind a blindfold in a place not only quiet but pitch dark. Read full review.

Jennifer Merin Filmmaker Susanne Bier’s Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller starring Sandra Bullock as a mom who is trying to transport her two kids to a safe and healthy environment in a world where looking into an afflicted person’s eyes can instantly cause suicidal madness. You might consider Bird Box the visual sequel to the audio-focused A Quiet Place. Both films entail narrative journeys based on improbably premises, but fine performances make for fine, fun, edgy, thrilling rides. Sandra Bullock’s performance is topnotch. And the denouement of Bird Box has a particularly intriguing twist.

Susan Wloszczyna: As far as apocalyptic thrillers go, Bird Box lacks the pacing and editing tricks that Hitchcock brought to The Birds and the suffocating sense of captive doom that George Romero injected into The Night of the Living Dead. But what this story about a mysterious deadly force, one that propels humanity to commit mass suicide on a global scale when they focus their eyes upon it, has is a fully committed knock-out cast of players topped by the always-watchable Sandra Bullock as a prickly pregnant artist who must risk her safety and go solo to save her children. Yes, that sounds like what A Quiet Place does with hearing, but this Netflix feature directed by Susanne Bier (TV’s The Night Manager) is based on a best seller that came out in 2014. What held my interest, beyond seeing how this situation ultimately plays out, was the top-shelf cast. John Malkovich waffles between being a negative Nelly but also the voice of reason is particularly good. He is joined by Trevante Rhodes (the adult Chiron in Moonlight), Jacki Weaver, BD Wong and one of my fave character actors, Tom Hollander. But it’s perennial Every-gal Bullock who ultimately is the VIP.

Anne Brodie: Susanne Bier’s dystopian horror outing Bird Box is an ambitious successful mashup of A Quiet Place, Lord of the Flies, Deliverance, Children of Men and I Am Legend that finds Sandra Bullock flashing back and forth in time at a hell of a pace. She’s in the midst of a deadly global plague that causes people to randomly commit suicide en masse. The key to survival is not looking at others because the malaise transfers via eye contact; it could be bio warfare or naturally occurring, but there’s no time to investigate. A rather stellar group (Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Jackie Weaver, Tom Holland, Danielle Macdonald, BD Wong and someone called Machine Gun Kelly) holes up in a covered house hoping for the best. The hunt for food puts them at risk, and new lovers (Bullock and Rhodes) somehow escape to the woods, and one is left to run with two children. Bullock’s character is like nothing we’ve seen from her; her voice hoarsened and flattened by the horrors she’s witnessed, and her transformation into a warrior. She’s angry but driven to survive, knowing full well she and her charges may not. Bullock’s perf is the most interesting part of this familiar film.

Elizabeth Whittemore While certain plot elements very closely resemble the storyline of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, Netflix’s new release Bird Box will undoubtedly keep you on the edge of your seat for the entirety of its two hour run. Sandra Bullock stars as a woman living in a world where an unseen force possesses people to commit suicide once they actually look at it. She learns to adapt by wearing a blindfold while out in the open air all while protecting two young children from the fate of most of the Earth’s population. The editing is everything in this film. Flashing between the initial world-wide incident to the present, the film keeps a heightened pace and feeling of dread. The performances from a hugely talented ensemble cast, including John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, and Sarah Paulson, (to name a few) give Bird Box a powerhouse feel that Netflix can now boast about. Their original content has become a real awards season contender in the past few years. Bullock’s emotionally complex role allows her to illustrate, once again, what a confident and strong actress she is. Bird Box is creative and scary. This one is a winner.

Cate Marquis Sandra Bullock stars as a woman who finds herself thrown in with a group of strangers trying to survive a weird global plague, where sight of strange shadows drives people to suicide. To survive, they live in a world without sight of the outside world. That premise inevitably invites comparison to A Quiet Place. In Bird Box, the concept does not work nearly as well . Getting around while blindfolded presents considerable problems, for the characters and for the script, but Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich, as the requisite jerk in the group, give it a good try. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock will notice the parallels to The Birds, in having a group of strangers trapped together in a home, with the threat consuming the world outside, even down to the presence of pet birds. Actually, Bird Box runs on two tracks, one with the group of people trapped soon after the disaster starts, and then one with Bullock’s character traveling down river with two small children to what she hopes will be a safer place. That journey looks like a long shot from the start, and seems less likely to succeed as it unfolds.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Bird Box

Directors: Susanne Bier

Release Date: December 14, 2018

Running Time: 125 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer adapted from Josh Malerman’s novel

Distribution Company: Netflix

Trailer

Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).