Photo Credits: ALLYSON KO / AGGIE
Netflix film challenges societal standards of motherhood, mental illness
On Dec. 13, Netflix released “Bird Box,” an original film that is both a thriller and an existential drama which digs into the presumptions society has about motherhood and those with severe mental illness. Malorie, played by Sandra Bullock, finds herself locked in a house with half a dozen strangers, unable to go outside or even look out a window. The consequence of doing either would result in an entity revealing something so despicable in their eyes that it causes them to commit suicide. To reach safety, Malorie and her two children risk their lives and row down a river blindfolded.
Malorie is pregnant at the beginning of the film, and it’s clear that she tries to avoid thinking about her impending role as a mother — who could blame her? Parenthood is the blind leading the blind, but in this case, it’s the blindfolded. Director Susanne Bier, well known for her ability to portray nuanced human emotions in the midst of chaos, draws out Malorie’s soft side as the movie progresses and pierces through her guarded front.
“Bird Box” is suspenseful from start to finish, and there’s little time devoted to character development in the first few scenes because of the apocalyptic mass suicides. This developmental delay is also present in Malorie’s decision to avoid giving her two children names; she simply calls them Boy and Girl. What seems like a harsh consequence of neglect can be viewed as a necessary survival tactic.
Olivia, played by Danielle Macdonald, represents the societal norm of what it means to be a good mother. The fact that her character ultimately doesn’t survive, however, suggests that being a nurturing mother is not appropriate for survival in their new world. Malorie is tough because that is what is necessary to survive. The role of a stone cold parent who disowns their emotions for the sake of the greater good is usually bestowed upon father figures. Malorie also suppresses the children’s dreams and sense of what could be. Tom, played by Trevante Rhodes, is in opposition to this approach because he feels that hope is what drives survival and emphasizes the difference between surviving and living — a perspective usually held by a nurturing motherly figure. This reversal of stereotypical gender norms defies the evaluation of parents based on their gender.
Ali Wong, a comedian and writer for “Fresh Off the Boat” on ABC, said in her latest stand-up on Netflix, “It takes so little to be called a really great dad, and it takes so little to be called a really shitty mom.” The standards placed upon women to act in a certain overly-affectionate manner is used as an evaluative tool to determine if a woman is a good or bad mother. “Bird Box,” however, challenges the valorization of affectionate mothers by making Malorie the protagonist, as opposed to Olivia.
The characters were blindfolded for a large portion of the movie, which left room for more creative techniques with the cinematography. Some of the scenes became increasingly more intense because the camera shot was from behind the blindfold — making the viewer feel a sensory deprivation that parallels the experiences of the characters themselves.
Bullock had to rely on her voice to express Malorie’s emotions while on the river to the safe place, which is an amazing feat considering that the eyes are often a focal point for cameras in an emotion-driven scene. The pace of Malorie’s intense breathing becomes the overpowering sound in a few scenes as a clever way to make up for the viewers’ lack of ability to see her eye expressions.
Gary, played by Tom Hollander, represents one of the “crazy” people in the movie. Not only can he look at the threat without committing suicide but he also invites — or rather, forces — others to look at the entity and see its “truth.” He disguises himself as a fellow survivor and manipulates his way into the house with Malorie and the others, but it is eventually revealed that his intention was to make them “see.” This portrayal of individuals with severe mental illness seems to distort the societal hierarchy that places “sane” people at the top and “crazy” people at the bottom. It flips the widely held idea that those with mental illness can’t be on the right side of the truth, and possibly, that everyone else can’t see what they see — the “truth.”
Birds are often used as a metaphor for freedom, and in the movie, following the sound of the birds is how Malorie and her children reach their freedom in the form of a shelter. They also serve as a warning signal for when the entity is near — letting people know their freedom is in danger.
For me, the film came to a screeching halt, and it felt as if there were avenues left unexplored. The movie could have answered a few logistical questions about the entity, which causes everyone to commit suicide, without making the viewers surrender their own theory as to what it could be representing.
“Bird Box” is a true testament to the influence Netflix possesses because the popularity and accessibility of streaming helps encourage people like myself to explore a genre that they wouldn’t normally seek out. The scale has tipped in favor of streaming over going to the cinema, which arguably helped to foster more conversation about the film.
Bird Box is available for streaming on Netflix.
Written by: Josh Madrid – firstname.lastname@example.org