While perusing a shelf of new lit in my local Barnes & Noble (this would be in the back half of 2014), I came across a curious cover. A dark forest, or so it seemed, and birds diving through the sky. The title was Bird Box, and the tagline beneath the title read, “Don’t open your eyes.” It was the single coolest cover on the shelf, and my interest was piqued. Everyone who says not to judge a book by its cover is ignoring the fact that we do that every single time.
Eventually I went back and picked up the book, wanting to check out the author after learning it was his debut novel. Josh Malerman is a rockstar (literally), a singer/songwriter for the group The High Strung, and his first novel had been a long time in the making. He has since published other stories I like, books like Black Mad Wheel and Unbury Carol, working with weird fiction and horror, surreal environments that seep little bits of everyday ideas into your skin to make it crawl. I thought it was interesting that his first novel had gotten so much attention from online critics, that it was placed so prominently in a bookstore, and that it had such an elaborate and fascinating cover to catch the eye.
It was great. I loved every page, the pace and execution making up for some of the story’s flaws. Shame the film adaptation couldn’t measure all the way up, but it’s still entertaining.
Bird Box is a 2018 film by director Susanne Bier, a Danish director endowed with an Academy Award in case you wanted her pedigree. What she’s crafted is a fascinating adaptation for Netflix, a company that is wildly hit-and-miss on their projects, and she’s put out one of their better films for this year. It isn’t exactly a horror film but it isn’t wholly a drama either, instead lying in the middle (where a lot of good scares exist) and playing hopscotch with the line. I think she’s created a genuinely interesting adaptation and she’s made some decisions that I don’t necessarily know if I’m into, but she’s drawn some great performances out of some really talented performers.
The film’s premise is going to get a lot of comparison to A Quiet Place because…well, it’s similar. The book came out before that film was more than a twinkle in the eye of John Krasinski, but there is no helping the similarities that will plague this adaptation (doesn’t help that it isn’t as good of a film). Essentially, there are monsters causing an epidemic of suicides. Instead of absolute silence, though, the things merely can’t be looked at without infection. It’s madness, you see, that comes of the sight of them. This madness affects most in a way that causes victims to kill themselves, but a portion of humanity is able to embrace the crazy and instead run around trying to force others to look. Within this landscape, a small group of survivors hides in a house and tries to make it through. That’s it, that’s the plot. It’s nice and simple in a great way.
Let’s get on that sweet, sweet cast train because this is an absolute murderer’s row of character actors that I love. People popped up in here that I’d forgotten about, that I love, and that I haven’t seen in ages. I went through a gamut of thoughts on this one.
First off let’s do our lead. Look, I’m just not a Sandra Bullock fan. Haven’t ever really been. Yes, I get it, While You Were Sleeping is adorable and charming and Speed is kind of sexy. But let’s not forget Hope Floats or 28 Days, and I’ll freaking make you sit and watch All About Steve if you deny that it happened (it did, and we let it happen, and we cannot allow that again). Her schtick, the charming rom-com, has gone the way of the Western and become something that just doesn’t sell anymore. It isn’t often that I get to see her stretch a bit, try something different, and even then I don’t always find it successful (I’ll admit that I enjoy Premonition, but it isn’t a good film). All that said, with my laundry list of her failures lain out…she’s pretty damn good in this. There’s shades of the socially awkward woman from All About Steve in this performance, but without the trappings of a rom-com to sit under she can allow it to just be that – social discomfort. Her character, Malorie, is a painter that lives alone and pregnant after a significant breakup. Her blunt, loving sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) rakes her over the coals about accepting her pregnancy and about rejoining society while hiding secrets of her own from family.
Bullock is an enigma to me most of the time, but when she’s given a basic throughline of “unfriendly woman who is scared and pregnant” she can apparently follow it through with gusto. None of those concepts are basic, but at the same time they are so inherent to the idea of bearing a child that it becomes impossible to separate them from each other because Malorie is bringing a life into the world, a world she doesn’t connect with. That is terrifying, and she doesn’t want to look at it or acknowledge it. Hell, early on we learn that the kids living with her are named “Girl” and “Boy,” how unfriendly is that? The disconnect between her and the world is something so strong you can almost taste it, and she doesn’t let this up. Her relationship to the children is not that of mother and child, but more of a strict schoolmarm and her wayward pupils. There is tenderness there, but it’s hidden beneath the harsh reality of the situation.
Rounding out the cast are some of my absolute favorites. Deep breath, there’s a lot of them:
- Trevante Rhodes
- John Malkovich
- Tom Hollander
- BD Wong
- Pruitt Taylor Vince
- Jacki Weaver
- Sarah Paulson (already mentioned but…she’s great)
I mean….why!? I’ve enjoyed each of these performers in roles here and there for years, particularly Malkovich. Each one puts in something different but each one also fails to save the film as a whole. It’s rough for me, as I love each of these performers from other projects and performances, but none of them is enough to save this film. Hell, Trevante Rhodes saved The Predator for me (well…as much as that film could be saved in any way), and he was unable to save this one. That’s partially because they’re such different animals, and partially because this film is a drama more than it is anything else. Rhodes needs to be able to stretch in this setting, and he isn’t given the screentime to do so compared to Bullock.
I want to talk about the monsters in this film. This is something that I know I’d have a hard time with; from day one, when I read the original Blacklist script for this film, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy pitch. In the novel they go unseen as…well, no one can see them without going insane. The film embraces this but it’s difficult because it doesn’t show them. Instead we see shadows, rustling trees, and their presence causes some sort of gravitational anomaly that screws with the environment around them. I think this was a no-win situation for Bier and the design team behind the film’s effects, one that they could not satisfactorily create anything to combat. They went the route of “there’s something there and it’s eerie, but we can’t show you” and honestly that’s the best they could have done. The Lovecraftian elements of the creatures, the idea that to even look at them breaks the mind, is just something that cannot be put to film and that’s the real issue with adapting this story, the ground-floor problem.
It doesn’t ruin it, though. Neither do any of the performances, and neither does the choppy pace of the writing. For all its flaws, this isn’t a failure of a film. Rather, it is a positively enjoyable misfire, the aesthetically pleasant visual of the hideout in the forest creating a claustrophobic environment to house these characters in that honestly kept me focused on the interpersonal drama. And that’s what this is, a bottled story that focuses on character drama that just happens to have monsters outside and a gimmick for how to interact with them. It’s a solid film that I can only be disappointed in because of how much I enjoyed the source material, but that shouldn’t serve as a knock on it.