2018 was a good year for the horror genre as filmmakers returned to thrilling moviegoers rather than simply grossing them out. The Halloween franchise essentially wiped away forty years of bad sequels and attempted reboots to remake the original John Carpenter thriller. The return-to-form racked up $250 million at the box office. John Krasinski made A Quiet Place, where making a simple sound was enough to set hearts beating loudly. It did even better at the box office, braking through $300 million worldwide. Then late in the year Netflix released Bird Box. While it has had a theatrical run, its main platform is the streaming service, where it has been viewed 45 million times. If that many viewings were translated into tickets sold, its gross would be around $400 million.
While Bird Box seems to have at least a spiritual thread with A Quiet Place – sight rather than sound – it’s actually based on a 2014 novel. The adaptation was done by Eric Heisserer, who’d cut his teeth on horror genre films when he started out before doing the screenplay for Arrival, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Susanne Bier took on the directing duties; she did the outstanding miniseries adaptation of John LeCarre’s “The Night Manager” two years ago.
Set in the Pacific Northwest, the movie pursues two story tracks 5 years apart. It begins in the later time, with a voice speaking over a radio: “We have a place, a compound. We have a community. It’s safe here. How many of you are there? Are any of them children? Because, the fastest way to get here is by the river, and I don’t think you could make it with kids.” But the warning about the river is ignored, underlining the desperate conditions facing Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and two young children, known only as Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair). As she prepares them for a rowboat trip down the river, she harshly tells them that they can’t remove their blindfolds.
The story then jumps back five years as the pregnant Malorie, who works as an artist, prepares for a prenatal appointment, accompanied by her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson). On the television is a report of strange outbreaks of mass suicide in Siberia, moving towards Europe, but they mute the sound before seeing that the happenings have also jumped to North America. As they enter the hospital, they see a young woman talking on her cell phone in a glassed-in walkway. When they exit, the woman is beating her face against the glass. Everything rapidly goes crazy, with people seeing “something” so shocking they’re compelled to immediately commit suicide. Jessica sees it and crashes the car. Malorie manages to make it into a nearby house that becomes a refuge for the home owner (John Malkovich), a veteran (Trevante Rhodes), an architect (BD Wong), and several others, including another pregnant woman.
The action flips back and forth between the house, with the disparate group fighting for survival, and the trip down the river five years later. As if whatever is causing people to commit suicide isn’t frightening enough, not everyone reacts that way. Some become proselytizers, forcing those who have survived to look and die. The audience, however, never gets to see what’s causing the mass hysteria. Bier and Heisserer know that the unknown and unseen is much more frightening. All we get to see are the reactions of those who do see, who go into a sort of trance as their eyes change color, and then they find someway to kill themselves.
Bullock’s Malorie is another sharp characterization added to her resumé of fine performances. She has the grit to do whatever is necessary to survive, but as she travels downstream with the children, she morphs into being their mother. A mother bear, to be sure, ready to fight for her children’s survival, but a mother none the less.
Bier’s direction is tightly focused so the film’s two-hour run time flies by. One set piece in particular has had unintended consequences. The group in the house has few supplies, but one of them worked as a security guard at a grocery store a few blocks away. When things went crazy, he’d locked the store and left. The group paints over the windows of an SUV in the garage then uses the vehicle’s GPS and proximity warning feature to slowly make their way to the store. Now some reality-challenged people have tried to redo the trick, driving blind. You’d think by now filmmakers wouldn’t have to slap a “Don’t Try This at Home” warning at the beginning of the film to prevent such stupidity.
Or maybe the warning should be, “You only get to drive like this during an actual apocalypse.”