I’m all for mystery in horror movies that taps into the primal fears of the audience. However, with glaring gaps in logic and sketchily written characters, Bird Box is a huge misstep. Still, director Susanne Bier has done worse. For her Netflix movie, the Danish director takes on Josh Malerman’s pulp horror novel and puffs it up with a ridiculously hopeful ending that will disappoint many who stick through the movie despite its lack of thrills. Weak movie finales don’t necessarily drive this writer as crazy as others. What matters is that the film feels like a bit of Swiss cheese with all its plot holes, which ultimately sap the story of its dread.
Sandra Bullock plays Malorie, a woman not really into children. She has no names for the two kids accompanying her on a journey by rowboat to sanctuary in a world where if you look, your vision will only be haunted by your worst fear, and you’ll immediately want to kill yourself. Some of the early scenes of chaos taking hold work well. In a way, those early scenes send up people’s ability to sabotage their own well-being through apathy. Bier gets points for that, but the film quickly begins to falter.
The story is told along two timelines. We start at Malorie’s desperate nadir, as she and the two kids — whom she only refers to as “Girl” (Vivien Lyra Blair) and “Boy” (Julian Edwards) — take their blind, risky trek via river. Though this section of the film is delineated by a startling amount of hours presented via captions, flashbacks to the time of the outbreak or alien invasion or supernatural rift (it’s never explained) get tiresome. In contrast to the river trip, we never know how long shelter was afforded our heroine in a house where a then pregnant Malorie and a rag tag group of survivors come to learn of their terrifying situation. It’s a contrast that would have added some spice to the proceedings, as Christopher Nolan did with Dunkirk (Dunkirk deserves all the technical prizes at next year’s Oscars but not main prize), juggling different narratives, though in that film they happened simultaneously.
No matter. Bird Box is ultimately weighed down by heavy-handed dialogue standing in for actual chemistry and feelings. Bier can’t pull genuine performances out of the actors, making even John Malkovich look weak as an unlikable man struggling with sudden tragedy while finding his house full of strangers. A wasted opportunity turned comic and annoying. And anyone who has seen Moonlight knows Trevante Rhodes can give a subtle multi-layered performance. Here, his attempts at being seductive with Bullock feel clumsy and self-aware, just another gimmick in a film filled with them.
Gimmicks don’t make a movie, but when it is poorly written and edited, there’s no saving it. There is a scene where the characters in the house are faced with having to leave safety for supplies. They devise a way to drive out sightless, painting over the windows of a car in the garage and navigate via GPS. There’s never a reference to mobile offline maps, which would explain that capability despite a loss of cell service. But even clumsier is their return inside the garage that doesn’t at least show the garage door going down to imply that they had a clicker in the car. You need these details to sustain the sense of a world where one expects the audience to constantly feel on edge about the dangers of opening a garage door in that situation.
I hate nitpicking at a movie, but when there are continual instances that take you out of what should be a thrilling adventure/terror movie, you have to call it out. This could have been so much better for those small moments when it works. The movie’s finale, by then, is the last straw, as it robs the viewer of a definitive if grim ending for a phony sense of a non-ending that is supposed to feel hopeful. Unlike the ending of the book, it in no way resolves the travesty that has befallen mankind in the world. It rather simply offers another instance to define the film’s rickety quality: just another plot hole in a series of plot holes that will frustrate many viewers looking for a well-earned thrill.
Bird Box is now streaming on Netflix. Jump through the title’s first reference to watch it if you are a subscriber.