While I haven’t read BIRD BOX’s source novel of the same name, much of the film’s tonal success is surely due to director Susanne Bier, whom English-speaking audiences will recognise from miniseries The Night Manager. For her first foray into horror, Bier adopts a back-to-basics approach, recognising the greatest suspense typically comes moments before the threat is revealed. As a result, we are never explicitly shown what is causing humans to attack each other and kill themselves in BIRD BOX, with this fear of the unknown subsequently commanding the viewer’s attention. Plenty of other horror films have shown similar restraint, in fact, just last year I wrote about how impressively Bryan Bertino’s The Monster did so. However, BIRD BOX sets itself apart and stays fresh across multiple narratives by using its central motif of sightlessness in a variety of ways, from the blindfolds featured prominently in the film’s marketing, to an incredibly tense driving sequence which I loved, but won’t spoil. Coupled with perfect editing that heightens the mystery without becoming disorienting, there’s plenty here for old-fashioned thrill seekers to enjoy.
Meanwhile, although the film’s cast are largely excellent, they’re somewhat held back by stock standard roles of the post-apocalypse genre. For instance, Tom (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes) is the everyman and de facto leader, Douglas (John Malkovich) is cynical, wise, and trusts no one, and Gary (Tom Hollander) is the enigmatic newcomer whose presence divides the group. As I hinted at earlier, these tired characterisations are elevated at times, particularly by Rhodes and Malkovich, while others such as Hollander and Jacki Weaver unfortunately aren’t given enough to do. Thankfully, BIRD BOX’s protagonist, Malorie, is not only its most interesting character, but is brought to life brilliantly by Sandra Bullock. Bullock has become much more open-minded when choosing roles over the past decade, with BIRD BOX being the greatest beneficiary of this since Gravity: Malorie is a pitch-perfect audience surrogate during the (chronological) first and second acts, pivoting effortlessly between grief, terror, and emerging strength. When she is later forced to take her children on a dangerous journey through the wilderness, Malorie has become a remarkable testament to human resilience in dire times. If her performance here is any indication, Bullock shouldn’t let BIRD BOX be the last time she delves into the horror genre.
BIRD BOX’s cast and crew ultimately succeed in crafting compelling horror from a recognisable formula. The film’s experiments with restricting and/or removing sight entirely are no mere gimmick, instead breathing fresh air into a genre in constant need of new ideas. Although it borders on predictable if you know where to look, it’s nevertheless a consistently entertaining thrill ride that belongs on everyone’s Netflix list.