Bird Box, and What I Didn’t See - Steve Daugherty
Netflix’s Bird Box has been hailed by the company as their most-watched week-of-release film ever. I was one of the tens of millions who tuned in. And I did so mostly because I had already tuned in to the story three Decembers earlier.
I consumed Josh Malerman’s debut novel, Bird Box, in three sittings. A nimbly paced, time-hopping thriller about a mother getting her two children down a river to safety as the world falls to malevolent beings who make suicide an irresistible impulse, the book was a decent addition to my shelves. Malerman leaves the right questions unanswered à la McCarthy’s The Road, and gave me an overall impression that the young author had graduated from a Stephen King writing school and was passably trying out his wings. The characters were somewhat flat, and I twisted my ankle on several plot holes (how does knowledge of the creatures’ method of killing people get transferred, since seeing them renders one immediately unavailable for comment?), but overall I enjoyed the ride.
Three Decembers later, and here I was enjoying it yet again—on screen. That is until I wondered if my enjoyment was a feature of my own unseeing ableism.
The movie largely follows the book’s plotting and characters, with no severe insults to any purists. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey is honored well enough I suppose, although the genre of depicting someone desperately journeying from a dystopian A to B with little more impetus than not dying may need a reboot. It’s getting harder to care. Netflix has conditioned us to imbibe dozens of episodes and multiple seasons of a character’s experiences, with a sum of several days of our lives engaged in caring about them. A two hour movie, such as Bird Box, may challenge our modern notion of how long it takes to love a hero, since 120 minutes is now the equivalent screen time of a bit-part player in a box set binge who lasts only an episode or two.
That said, casting Sandra Bullock as Malorie was a direct hit. A soft heart wrapped tightly in uncompromising necessity, Bullock’s Malorie is the grown up Katniss Everdeen I didn’t know I needed to check in on. I’ve enjoyed watching her save herself from a collapsing space station, Los Angeles from a bus, and literally all of us from the internet. But her groping her way through hell may be my new favorite. As a bonus, the fraught stuttering Bullock often uses to emote mental stress in her characters—as much a hallmark as a Tom Cruise sprint—has transformed; Malorie repeats entire phrases as though stuck in a loop when under pressure. I enjoyed the evolution.
Sarah Paulson, as Malorie’s sister, Jess, was sadly only on camera for a few moments, and her demise contradicts my early statement about our having time to emotionally invest. Paulson is the kind of actor who can invest real weight into seconds of screen time. She helped invest me, early in the film.
John Malkovich played John Malkovich with the pseudonym Douglas, a logical survivalist whose career as a lawyer eliminated any concern he might have once had about seeming like a sociopath. Delightful as ever. And there’s able support in the form of Trevante Rhodes, a perfect complement to our protagonist, neither outshining Malorie (my wife may disagree here, even with the TV muted…) nor leaving her to her calculating Darwinian reductionism (she named the kids Boy and Girl, for goodness’ sake.)
The rest of the cast provide a bit more dimension than the book, as well as the necessary genre tropes: a real-life rapper trying out his acting chops, a no-nonsense elderly lady who will hit you if she must, a surprisingly astute grocery clerk possessing otherwise unavailable answers (donning his red grocery vest until his death, as if to prevent us forgetting that pre-apocalypse, we had ignored him to our discredit.)
Bird Box the movie is periodically tense and thrilling, but for me it fell short of being as scary—certainly not as terrifying—as has been insisted by audience members sounding off online. As the easy-to-recognize progeny of Shyamalan’s The Happening and Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, Bird Box was also only about as frightening, and I didn’t lose sleep over either. The movie’s true impact on me was something other than what director Susanne Bier probably intended.
A full day after the credits rolled, I felt like a blindfold had been lifted, so to speak. Apart from whether the movie was enjoyable, scary, or could be bothered to explain how Felix was capable of having enjoyable sex with Lucy despite all the demons and corpses on the front lawn, I realized I had just been entertained by something that made mentally ill and blind characters into props. Dare I conclude that I had just been an unseeing participant in ableism?
Throughout the film, mentally ill people are the malevolent entity’s malevolent henchmen. They require no shielding of their eyes. They have seen the monster, but because they were already mentally “askew”, they don’t experience any suicidal impulses. In fact, they see no monster when they look at all, but ineffable beauty. They drive about the countryside now, thriving in stolen cars and in functional collaboration with one another, forcing the good sane people’s eyelids open to see the unseeable and take their own lives, rejoicing in their renewed purpose. Or, shorter: hey all the crazy people who perhaps make those of us whose mental conditions are more conventional feel funny when we’re around them, they were best suited to work for the devil.
One thing should be obvious: the difficulties of living with mental illness of varying type and degree are compounded by stigma. Bird Box capitalizes on this stigma. These dear people, and I mean “dear” not to condescend, but as I would of anyone about who deserves care, attention, respect, suffer social distancing, isolation, and prejudice that may cost them the opportunity to make a living or enjoy connection with others. Sadly, fear of these difficulties causes a majority of them to not get the help they need out of the hope that unacknowledged illness can’t and won’t be stigmatized.
Our culture has already trained many of us to distance ourselves from those labeled weird or crazy. Major news outlets and films reinforce our whole lives that mental illness is equivalent to dangerous. Think of it; soon after news breaks of a mass shooting, a debate ensues about whether the shooter was a terrorist or was mentally ill. As if there were no other option.
I wonder why Bird Box didn’t do a better job of dignifying the people that seemed to serve an outmoded caricature. The toll mental illness can take on those burdened, and their loved ones, and how aware of this the rest of us have become; I had the sense that Bird Box had ultimately proven to be a $20 million punching down on those it could have just as easily, and perhaps more interestingly, lifted up. And not just the mentally ill, either.
Frankly, where the hell was Daredevil?
You know, the blind superhero that Netflix showed us was capable of kicking ass and taking names? Perhaps changes like this would’ve put the movie on a totally different set of tracks. Note that Bird Box comes to its credits with blind folks turning out to have had keys to the kingdom all along, but they play no role in the heroics of the movie before this point. They simply live — with the help of the seeing of course — at the end of the river that Malorie must brave. The story has it that they’ve been there for four years: so for nearly half a decade, why did the blind not venture out to help in a world that they have always thrived in anyway? Couldn’t Bird Box have been, in part, the story of so-called disabled folks proving to be able, or even the most able? I don’t know. I’m able-bodied and may have just moved the disabled-folks-as-props problem one seat over. Alas, my visually impaired, blind and mentally ill friends and family must tire of being popularly portrayed by people who don’t seem to understand them.
I don’t know if Bird Box discriminates against blind folk, or consents to blindfolding itself to get a bunch of us down the river, but the outcome is the same: an interesting story propped up by a problematic one. Maybe even a bad one. As a neurotypical man, I’m trying to do better than ask whether a movie is a good movie, but also whether it is good for us. Because if these end of the world tales are showing us anything, it’s that if it ultimately enshrines a stigma rather than deflates it, it isn’t.