The first time that we see Sandra Bullock in the terrifying dystopian thriller, Bird Box, she’s flatly and brutally laying down the law to two sweet faced little children who she refers to plainly as “Boy” and “Girl”, providing them with a bone-shaking guide for survival free of sugar coating. It’s tough stuff, and an instant signpost that this is not the Sandra Bullock that we know and love. Harsh, desperate, and no-nonsense, this is a call-back to her stunningly abrasive turn in the Oscar winning Crash, and she’s just as good here, if not better. Superbly directed with a wonderfully grim sense of economy by Danish filmmaker, Susanne Bier (Brothers, Open Hearts, In A Better World Bird Box), Bird Box punches hard and offers no emotional quarter, and neither does Sandra Bullock.
In this semi-sci-fi shocker’s very, very near future, a cruel, unforgiving – and unseen – presence has decimated the world’s population, with all who make the mistake of glimpsing it prompted into a suicidal frenzy. With pockets of humanity staking out their own claims, and other groups not jumped to suicide but instead taking on a kind of zealot’s fury in forcing others to embrace the horror, the world has become a truly horrifying place. With these death-bringing creatures swooping out of the sky at any moment, Bullock is Malorie, a mother desperately trying to protect her children from the nightmare around them. All blindfolded to prevent them from inadvertently looking at the thing that will instantly make them lose their minds, this vulnerable trio embarks on a journey toward hoped-for safety.
While the world created by Bier and screenwriter, Eric Heisserer (adapting Josh Malerman’s novel), is a singularly frightening one, Bullock’s Malorie is equally fascinating. As we learn in flashback scenes (including an extraordinary set-piece introducing the unseen horrors), she is a cynical, deeply reluctant mother, and her actions throughout the film are never quite what we expect. Whether in her relationship with fellow survivor, Tom (the charismatic Trevante Rhodes in a sweetly sympathetic turn), or her harsh interactions with the kids in her care, Malorie constantly switch-foots audience expectations.
She is, however, a real anchor in this very scary film, as her glacial exterior slowly melts to reveal the humanity beneath. It’s a fine performance from Bullock, and an equally impressive one from director, Susanne Bier. While her decision not show the film’s threat (except in a few briefly glimpsed drawings) is a bold and daring one that will infuriate many viewers, her expert handling of the material is undeniable. There are a number of sequences that will literally have you on the edge of your seat, and Bier’s mastery of suspense and emotion is near remarkable. Packing an intense emotional wallop and a truly nail-grinding sense of suspense, Bird Box is a surprise stunner.