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Back in the spring, in A Quiet Place, the characters had to keep their mouths shut because the monsters had super-acute hearing. Now, seven months later, everyone has to wear blindfolds if they’re outside or else what they see will induce them to immediately commit suicide. Throw in a touch of George Romero and you have Bird Box, a “class” horror film by virtue of star Sandra Bullock and art house director Susanne Bier but one that diminishes in joltage as the number of castmembers contracts. Premiered at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, this is a wannabe shocker with a clever premise that doesn’t really get down and dirty or betray the base instincts of a born horror filmmaker.
Netflix will offer this up as one of its holiday gifts Dec. 21.
Bier, whose 2010 Danish thriller In A Better World won the Oscar for best foreign language film, serves up an entirely dire world here, one in which people who are normal one minute go bonkers and kill themselves the next. No one knows what’s going on or why this is happening, but an early line of dialogue sums it up, even if it wouldn’t serve as the ideal advertising tagline: “If you look, you will die.”
In the resulting chaos, close to a dozen people wind up cloistered in a private home, hiding away and intent upon letting no more strangers inside. In the short time that they retain TV service, they learn that what’s happening locally is also occurring globally, so they’re trapped and must brace for an onslaught of zombies or whatever they are, just like the characters in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
One big difference, however, is that the mass attack on humanity is intercut with scenes of Bullock’s Malorie, some time in the future, guiding a small metal boat blindfolded, no less, down a wild river in the company of two little kids, who are similarly sight-deprived. Malorie’s level of sightless boating expertise may, in fact, be unprecedented, and certainly becomes so when they hit the rapids much later on. In any event, this signals that only these three will survive the pressure cooker of the house in which most of the action takes place.
The home in question is that of Douglas (John Malkovich), a hardliner who resents the intrusion of strangers, no good Samaritan he. All the same, the guests he tolerates for well over an hour of screen time represents a notably diverse group. Bullock’s Malorie is a loner and a painter whose sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) may also be her closest friend. It won’t be too long before Malorie gives birth to her first child, and the same goes for the frightened Olympia (Danielle Macdonald, the star of Patti Cake$). Among the others seeking shelter are Tom (Trevante Rhodes), a young Iraq War vet who takes an interest in Malorie no matter her condition; Charlie (Lil Rel Howery), a most amiable young sci-fi writer; and Greg (BD Wong), very likely the sharpest person in the room.
When a number of the survivors safely make it to a local supermarket and have their way with what’s on the shelves, Douglas seriously proposes just staying there, as they’ll then have plenty to eat for a very long time. But even that is only a relative advantage, as food (and, more to Douglas’ needs, booze) will run out at some point and they’ll be prisoners in the house in the meantime.
The film does succeed in building a feeling of oppressive claustrophobia and a last-stand mentality; the idea that you will become contaminated and very shortly thereafter bring upon your own death merely by casting your gaze upon the world is a creepy one, to be sure. At a couple of points, however, evident exceptions to the rule pop up, grungy individuals who have somehow escaped automatic death in ways that remain unclear. The fate of the entire world similarly remains uncertain, although there is an echo of Fahrenheit 451 to the conclusion.
As has long been her wont, Bullock again portrays a strong woman who will not be denied, one who will move heaven and Earth and do whatever it takes to survive an arduous task demanding great endurance. It’s probably not coincidental that the screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, working from Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel, had previously written the female-centric sci-fi yarn Arrival, which similarly held back information other writers might have felt compelled to provide.
Ultimately, no matter how high-minded a view of the material Heisserer and Bier may have held, this is deep-dish popular material that feels shortchanged in terms of suspense, scares and thrills. For her part, Bullock seems to have placed a foot in each camp, as she has done on occasion in the past, but she’s rather underserved by a writer and director perhaps uncertain about how to maximize the piece’s genre potential while simultaneously keeping it smart.
Salvatore Totino’s sharp cinematography represents a solid plus, but most helpful of all is the atypical, ominous and vastly mood-enhancing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Venue: AFI Film Festival
Opens: Dec. 21 (Netflix)
Production: Bluegrass Films, Dylan Clark Productions, Chris Morgan Productions
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jackie Weaver, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince
Director: Susanne Bier
Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer, based on the novel by Josh Malerman
Producers: Dylan Clark, Chris Morgan, Clayton Townsend
Executive producers: Sandra Bullock, Susanne Bier, Ainsley Davies, Alexa Faigen, Ryan Lewis, Eric Heisserer
Director of photography: Salvatore Totino
Production designer: Jan Roelfs
Costume designer:Signe Sejlund
Editor: Ben Lester
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd, Jina Jay
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