Given the fact that sex and violence are alleged to be as normalized in our culture as wind blowing through the trees, in Bird Box, Malorie’s shock even appears prudish and inexplicable to us. But in Bier’s handling of the material, Malorie’s consternation registers a deeper distress: how much choice do we have to select what we see when what we see is destructive to us?
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When I watched Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, I thought of Alexander DeLarge, Anthony Burgess’s hoodlum antihero in A Clockwork Orange and the Ludovico treatment to rid him of his “ultra-violence.” Remember Alex? The good doctors prop open Alex’s eyelids with clips so that he is unable to blink them or close them. They tie down his hands and legs in a straitjacket chair so he is unable to move. Then they place him in front of a large screen and continuously project image after image of filmed violence without reprieve: a man killed with repeated blows to his head that splits open his skull, a film of a woman violently raped by seven men one after the other, an old woman beaten and set on fire, Japanese torture films from the Second World War. In the film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, the images also include scenes with Hitler, the Nazis, and the Jewish Holocaust accompanied by Alex’s favorite “soundtrack”: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In the end, the Ludovico “treatment” makes Alex physically sick at the sight of violence.
Sight is a cardinal sense awareness, particularly for films, a visual medium. As with the films that Alex is made to watch, in Bird Box sight is dangerous, violent, deadly. Every scene where the characters open their eyes and look at something, somebody dies. Sight embodies a death wish, a suicidal drive in Bird Box. Blindness in the film, however, is an insight, an invitation to life.
This paradox of Bird Box – sight dangerous, blindness good – is an inversion of our current paradigm of knowledge. The faculty of vision, of sight, is often allegorized as insight and wisdom, especially in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. From aged Jacob losing his sight and regaining it after his recognition and reunion with Benjamin in the Book of Genesis and the Qur’an, to the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace,” where life before and after divine grace is metaphorically aligned with “Was blind but now I see,” the ability to see is positively valorized in our culture. And seeing is believing. However, in Bird Box, sight is deadly; sight is corrupt, violent, senseless. We don’t need an apocalypse or a dystopia to infer that this allegory could very well be talking about the visual media that surrounds us in our ordinary daily lives.
I have not read Josh Malerman’s novel on which Bier’s film is based, but in Bier’s treatment of the novel’s material, this allegorical reversal of the relative values of sight and blindness is evident right from the start. Bird Box generates, sustains, and resolves this paradoxical value of sight and blindness boldly and with heart and confidence. Sandra Bullock, who plays the mother Malorie in a powerful performance, in an early scene, walks in on a young couple having calisthenic sex in the laundry room. As she walks away with a lingering jolt, Tom, her fellow refugee from the deadly unseen apocalypse eating up the world, remarks, “That’s something you can’t unsee.” Indeed, given the fact that sex and violence are alleged to be as normalized in our culture as wind blowing through the trees, Malorie’s shock even appears prudish and inexplicable to us. But in Bier’s handling of the material, Malorie’s consternation registers a deeper distress: how much choice do we have to select what we see when what we see is destructive to us?
Thus, Malorie’s hysterical advice to her children at the beginning of the movie – “You have to do every single thing I say, or we will not make it. Understand?” – is both practical requirement for their survival in the face of the unseen threat and a mother’s affective obsession with making her children safe from unseen and unknown disasters.
After all, what is a bird box? Semantic patterning tells us that it is a “bird’s nest,” and the multiple references to birds in the film all overdetermine this symbolic meaning for the bird box. A bird box is a bird’s nest. A bird’s nest is a metaphor for a family. The bird box is them: Malorie, boy, girl.
A bird’s nest, a bird box, is where the adult birds nurture the fledglings before they fly off. In a beautiful and tendentious moment in the film, Tom, memorably acted by Trevante Rhodes, admonishes Malorie for interrupting him while he tells a story to the children – simply named Boy and Girl – giving them names might be tempting fate in the face of precarity – of what he saw on top of the giant oak tree that he climbed long before the apocalypse. Malorie stops Tom from continuing with the story, since “it is a story, it is a lie.” The children will never go outside or climb a tree, she says. Tom’s response to Malorie underscores the urgency of dreams in the midst of hopelessness and dead ends: “Life is more than just what is. It’s what could be. What you could make it. You need to promise them dreams that may never come true. You need to love them knowing that you may lose them at any second. They deserve dreams. They deserve love. They deserve hope. They deserve a mother.”
We don’t need an apocalyptic dystopia to understand the import of Tom’s words. Every day, all over the world, parents do this for their children. Not that long ago, Martin Luther King Jr. wove his dreams for the children of America.
Bird Box defiantly moves toward this denouement with eyes wide shut. Malorie and the children brave the rapids in their blindfolds, reuniting after being scattered in the white water and the black rocks. Almost in the manner of a fable – indeed the entire film has the look and feel and pacing of a fable or an allegory – we understand why they will be safe where they have arrived. If the world around you is too toxic to change, you can always inoculate yourself. You can close your eyes.
Bird Box is defiant with yet another bold step: those allied with the violence of sight are described in the film as “mad.” This is the conceptual madness of those who choose to hunt and kill and find it all to be “beautiful.” One after the other, the ones who keep their eyes open and see the destruction of the apocalypse around them find it “beautiful.” They reproduce the ugliness of the devastation in their words. Like all fascists, they find destruction beautiful as they go about destroying the world around them. They invite those who shy away from violence and annihilation, like Malorie, to open their eyes and look at the ruination and join them in the thrill of destruction.
Malorie and the resistance say “no” to this indecent invitation to death. Within the moral universe of the film, it is madness to kill, to choose death, and it is madness to endorse, appreciate, and enjoy killing.
Bird Box is a refreshing film, a different film, entertaining to watch, and to unpack. Those who like Sandra Bullock – I do – will find the film confirms her ability to render dramatic performances that stay with you in an understated manner. Trevante Rhodes is equally memorable in his cameo role. Bier’s films – Brothers, After the Wedding, In a Better World – have always revolved around family dynamics. Bird Box is a defiant family film for anyone struggling with the present fascist admiration of ultraviolence.
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All images are screenshots from the film, courtesy of Netflix.