If you told me “Bird Box” was based on a Stephen King story — yep, I could see that.
It’s that chilling. That suspenseful. And oh yes, that scary.
But in fact the prolific Mr. King had nothing to do with this gripping apocalyptic thriller, streaming worldwide on Netflix.
“Bird Box” is based on a novel by Josh Malerman. Thanks to the rich source material, the innovative directing work by the accomplished Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, the razor-sharp screen adaptation by Eric Heisserer (“Arrival,” “Lights Out”), a stunningly effective score from the Oscar-winning duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”) and the uniformly excellent performances by one of the deepest casts seen in any film this year, this is an unexpected late-December gift. Here’s hoping it doesn’t get lost in the annual holiday avalanche of big-time, high-profile studio releases.
Sandra Bullock delivers one of her best performances as the blunt and pragmatic and no-nonsense Malorie, who is first seen barking orders at two children before they embark on a treacherous, quite possibly life-threatening journey down a choppy river.
You have to do every single thing I say or we will not make it, do you understand? Malorie tells the boy who is named Boy (Julian Edwards) and the girl who is named Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair). Under no circumstances are you to take off your blindfolds, do you understand?
Because to take off the blindfolds is to die within seconds.
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We flash back five years, when the pregnant Malorie and her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) are bantering with each other, talking about family issues and just going through another day, when all hell breaks loose — first in remote cities halfway across the globe and then in blood-spattered horror right in front of them.
Some mysterious, unseen, widespread and destructive force is driving thousands and then millions to commit suicide. If you look directly at this … thing, even for a second, you’ll see and hear loved ones who died long ago, urging you to join them on the other side, or you’ll be otherwise compelled to kill yourself by any gruesome and instantly available method, whether it’s jumping in front of a speeding truck, leaping out of a building or stabbing yourself.
As the carnage piles up around her, Malorie manages to find sanctuary in an expansive, ad hoc fortress of a house already populated by a number of movie-ready archetypes, including:
• The hard-drinking, shotgun-toting, cold-hearted, me-first, complete jerk Douglas (John Malkovich).
• The tough but grandmotherly Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), who of course WILL take charge and ask for hot water, lots of towels and scissors when Malorie goes into labor.
• The comic relief, end-of-days, “I knew this was gonna happen!” conspiracy theorist/grocery clerk Charlie (Lil Rel Howery).
• The brave and resourceful overseas combat veteran turned construction crew chief Tom (Trevante Rhodes), who takes an instant liking to Malorie that quickly blossoms beyond protectiveness.
For a stretch, “Bird Box” feels like one of those zombie-apocalypse movies or TV series where the real story isn’t about the monsters clawing at the door — it’s about the depths some humans will sink in order to survive, while others surprise even themselves with their heroics. (Hello, “The Walking Dead.”)
A trip to the supermarket for supplies (they black out the windows of the car and rely on the GPS to navigate the route) results in a harrowing sequence that actually does echo a horror film based on a Stephen King book: “The Mist” (2007). At times, certain plot twists are reminiscent of an M. Night Shyamalan film. And yes, it’s easy shorthand to compare “Bird Box” to “A Quiet Place,” with “Don’t look!” in place of “Don’t make a sound!” (Although of course the source material for this film was created well before “A Quiet Place” hit theaters.)
But just when things are getting a little too conventional or familiar, we flash forward to that thicreepy, disturbingly effective sequence five years down the road, with Malorie and those two kids in a rowboat, desperately trying to locate a sanctuary, fending off everything from roaring rapids to a suspicious guy offering his help to the unmistakable presence of that unseen force — all while trying to resist the urge to take off those blindfolds.
Great, shudder-inducing stuff.
As for that title, here’s the thing. Not only can birds sense when that suicide-inducing entity is closing in, they’re immune to its deadly seductions. So, they serve as an early warning system and as a beacon to safe harbor.
If you’re hiding out, a bird in the hand is worth more than just about anything. If you’re making one last mad blind run for it, the sounds of birds chirping — well, that’s a life-saving beacon.
Unless that monstrous force has figured out a way to simulate birds chirping, just as it knows how to trick you into believing you’re hearing and seeing your dearly departed mother or sibling or spouse.
I’m not saying that’s what happens. I’m not revealing whether “Bird Box” ends with one last Twilight Zone knife to the gut, or with an open-ended cliffhanger, or with a lovely and happy ending — or if it takes some other route to the finish line.
You can see for yourself.
Netflix presents a film directed by Susanne Bier and written by Eric Heisserer. Rated R (for violence, bloody images, language and brief sexuality). Running time: 124 minutes. Now showing on Netflix.