Bad Lessons from Bird Box

The new joyful festive season Netflix movie Bird Box is quite the trip. Apparently it was a surprise hit amongst families on Christmas Day. I bet that was fun for people…

I’m just now settling down to watch it, as I get ready to leave the in-laws and try to swallow down the usual dread that comes from heading back down to London. Immediately I’m struck by its quasi-Lovecraftian set-up. It’s all too familiar. Not to mention unsubtle.

We meet Malorie, played by Sandra Bullock, a seemingly determined, stern, no-bullshit woman who is shepherding two kids through the American wilderness. They’re all blindfolded. Led to a river’s edge, they charter a rowing boat blind and begin the steep curve of their Kurtz-gradient into the unknown.

We’re soon given a flashback to five years earlier, before this strange non-apocalypse took hold. Malorie is painting in a studio. Her sister arrives and tells her to put on the TV.

The news media are reporting mass suicides all over the world but Malorie isn’t interested. She’s a painter, perpetually distracted by herself and her work. She’s also very pregnant but she’s choosing to ignore that fact also. Her sister drags her to an ultrasound check up and, as she leaves the hospital, she sees a woman smashing her head against a window, like a zoo animal experiencing captivity psychosis.

She doesn’t do anything. but then she is pregnant. She just leaves, jumping into a car, her sister sat in the front seat waiting for her outside. She tells her, the fear audible in her voice, to just drive.

The world very suddenly falls apart all around them. Malorie’s sister tells her that she’s going to stay with them until whatever this is blows over. “But I have nothing to wear!” Her sister chastises her. Malorie apologies — in times of crisis, she tends to focus on what’s not important to distract herself, she admits.

It’s one of many unsubtle glimpses into Malorie’s character and there is plenty more where that came from. Every insight into every character’s backstory in this film is like a scripted sledgehammer.

True to her own absentmindedness, Malorie only survives at first because she is distracted looking for something in the back seat of her sister’s car. As she reaches and fumbles around for whatever she is looking for, Malorie fails to see whatever her sister sees. Her sister’s eyes are where they should be, on the road, but now welling up and changing her in an instant from those of a concerned relative to a suicidal lemming, trying to plow the car into whatever is in front of her.

Eventually, she’s successful, rolling the car with them both inside it.

We’re 12 minutes into the film at this point and all I’m thinking about is Laurie Penny’s 2016 article “Against Bargaining“. I’ve written about it on the blog before. The first paragraph is a sucker punch.

What does it mean to be mentally healthy in a world gone mad? Sirens are blaring, lights are flashing, and we have been whisked out of the territory of metaphor onto the hard ground of fact. The rise to power and election of Donald J. Trump is the sick recrimination of a society shriveled by anger and anxiety, and the response from deep within the psyche of the same society has been various degrees of panic, depression, and grief. Illinois suicide hotlines have been overwhelmed since the election, with calls up 200 percent, according to Chicago public health officials. A mental health asteroid has smashed into the carapace of a culture already calcified with anxiety and ambient dread. Major newsrooms are rumored to have hired in therapists so their journalists can continue to work. Everyone is wondering what this crisis will mean for their future, for their families, trying to work out how they’ll cope. Some coping strategies, however, are more dangerous than others.

When I wrote about this article previously, I wrote about the “territories of metaphor” that had led us up to this point — The Walking Dead and The OA in particular are two shows that have dealt with the “end of the world” as a huge psychological event. Now, two years later, here it is. No biopolitical (or necropolitical) metaphors here — not really. There’s external threat, sure, but it’s not seen by us. The lack of a tangible “monster” makes it all the more powerful and real here. Mental illness is a threat unto itself.

After her sister crashes her car with her inside, Malorie is taken in by Greg, a man whose house has become a shelter for a band of thrown-together survivors with whom we spend the majority of the rest of the film. They immediately start to speculate as to what it is they’re dealing with.

“This has a classical biowarfare signature,” says John Malkovich’s character, Douglas. “North Korea or Iran.” Except there’s nothing biological about it. It’s psychological all the way down. In tune with this, next there’s Charlie, a local supermarket worker. For him the threat is surely demons or spirits of the final judgement, taking on the form of your deepest fears or sadnesses.

Other people suggest other things as they try to make sense of what is happening to them. Eventually, the creatures are given form indirectly through the drawings of someone who can look at the creatures without wanting to kill themselves. The noumenal distress of others is given Cthulhic form in the very few representations we see of them — vague bulbous cephalopod heads with face tentacles too. We only see them secondhand. They are Lovecraftian horrors beyond perception. As such, since they remain unseen directly, for the viewer they are the beating heart of the film’s psychic infrastructure.

Internet theories have abound as to what these monster really are, of course, with clickbait explainer videos on YouTube, but who really cares? I watched a few and the joke seems to be on those people who spent so much time making 10-minute videos about folklore and parables about finding yourself. To focus on all that seems to be blindly following Malorie’s own logic: focusing on what’s ultimately unimportant to distract yourself from the very real horrors in front of you. And those concrete horrors are, just like in Lovecraft’s own stories, human detritus and the mentally ill…?

That’s the cold hard fact of this film. What is affecting the world is a pervasive mental health crisis: depressive mass hysteria. Even those who don’t kill themselves, resisting the urge to “look”, are soon afflicted by a neurotically individualist paranoia. Mental illness is both the outside threat and it’s also the film’s pervasive reality. Either you’re abjectly depressed or neurotically repressed. The middle ground is you already knew you were crazy.

This is made most clear later on in the film when, once cabin fever has more or less set in, the survivors let an Englishman into the house called Gary. He explains he’s been chased by the mentally ill from a local asylum for the criminally insane — eye roll — and seeks shelter so he can throw them off his trail. The insane don’t need blindfolds, he says, and what’s worse is that they want people to see. The truth of their socially unacceptable mental experiences has now been affirmed, making them even more of a threat to society. They are the Cthulhu Cult to the film’s demonic projections.

… But wait, hang on, let’s back track a minute — what’s the message here? If it looks like the world might be ending, keep your eyes down, don’t go outside, don’t look, what you don’t see can’t hurt you. But look at what exactly? These depression demons are like the Gatwick drones. Vivid figments, assuaged by a paranoid inattention.

This is like someone managed to make a good film out of a really terrible idea. Maybe I’m just being cynical but the message that’s driven home throughout the film seems very clear to me. Take Douglas, for instance. He is Greg’s neighbour and one of the first to reach his house once the crisis starts. In fact, he may have already been there when everything started. It transpires that, before everything happened, he was suing Greg. In one scene, Malorie asks him why.

“Because they want to tear down this part of their house and built some glass monstrosity. His husband’s an architect.”

“It’s his property. Why do you care what he builds?”

“Because I have to look at it.”

The dialogue we witness between Malorie and the other survivors is just as on-the-nose. Sight is made into a voluntaristic and moralising affliction. Yeah, Malorie is disconnected and cold but that’s what ultimately leads to her survival. The characters are defined by their desire not to look at what they judge to be wrong and then, with some twisted irony, this habit is what saves them. At the end of the world, ignorance is bliss, knowledge is death. This is taken so far that, at the film’s climax, when Malorie and the kids reach their safe haven, they discover it’s a former school for the blind. Yep, if you want to survive in this new world, your best bet is being medically blind. That should do it.

After her conversation with Douglas, Malorie later talks to Charlie, the man with the theory about Boggart-like creatures in the sky. He’s writing a novel, of course, when not working the supermarket shop floor.

“It’s about the end of the world. My novel. But it’s not one of those kids’ stories where they’ve all got crossbows running around and they’re killing each other in survive or running around some giant maze. No, this story’s gonna be real.”

“Did you ever think it was gonna be anything like this?”

He doesn’t respond. The irony seems to be that no one knows what “real” is. Everyone’s knowledge of the world seemingly comes from the internet, which Malorie is silently cynical about on numerous occasions. Charlie’s conspiracy theories are 4chan fodder, and another character, also pregnant like Malorie, seems to get all her medical advice from the internet too. What’s the message here? Your truth is fake news, sucker, but the real truth will make you kill yourself… So… Gouge out your eyes maybe, I dunno… Shit’s hopeless.

Malorie and Douglas become unlikely friends around the mid-point of the film, bonding over their lack of self-awareness and cynicism. Douglas’ declaration of “making the end of the world great again” is certainly another unsubtle jab at the present, and it leads to a great eye-rolling amongst the house-bound group too, but ultimately they remain trapped between their realisms — the dual “realisms” of “I-know-best” individualism as found on both sides of the political divide. Judgement from all sides. That great modern affliction where “common sense” is reasoning unexamined from beyond the boundaries of your own belief system.

We should remember that all of this clunky exposition is peppered by flashes of the journey up river. Malorie sails blindfold for two days into the heart of darkness with the two children in her charge, but what kind of Kurtz-gradient is this? Is it inverted? Neutered? Is this not the logic of Penny’s mental health asteroid? The belief that the political singularity of Trump is the very edge of reason? Kurtz has been elected to the Oval Office through inattention. We’re not down river, we’ve been up river for decades. It’s time to strap on your blindfold and head back down now. This is Deliverance in reverse with added airborne depression. And to look at the reality of this situation is to depress yourself into self-annihilation, so now let’s head back to cold comfort with our fingers in our ears along the way.

To return to Penny’s article, she poignantly writes, in light of this film’s plot:

There are none so blind as those who won’t see — specifically, those who have been conditioned through generations of history lessons and Hollywood propaganda to be suspicious of authoritarian strongmen and yet still refuse to recognize an actual fascist when he struts into the White House with a Suicide Squad of goons. […] What was it actually like to be an ordinary German in 1933? What were people feeling, listening to the state wireless whine out the workings of the new world order? How many were pleased to see the blackshirts on their streets — and how many were simply keeping their heads down, telling themselves that they’d been through worse, that they should give the new guys a chance and see if they really meant what they said? How many tried to normalize the utterly unconscionable, because the alternative was despair?

When has “keeping your head down” and not looking outside been seen as a viable survival strategy in light of this mess from history? Nevertheless, we see it today. Penny continues:

So you tell yourself that you survived Bush and Blair. Surely you can survive this, too. If you keep your head down. If you give the new order a chance. If you don’t make any strong statements. If you trust the government not to run the train off the rails. There will be attempts to reason with the abuser. To make him less of an abuser, because it is in fact hard to accept yourself as a victim. In the face of a sea-change in the sociopolitical order, you shut yourself tight in your shell and seal yourself off against everything that disturbs you. This might be thought of as the clam before the storm. And this is how it happens. This is how the bad guys win.

Laurie Penny is rejecting bargaining here, of course. It’s the fucking title of the essay after all. She’s rejecting the mental gymnastics that avoid confrontation or attempt to reason with an abuser or even with death.

The message of this film, in light of a pervasive mental health crisis, is there is no reasoning with those who want you to open your eyes. It’s as if Penny herself, as she writes here, would be an enemy in a film like Bird Box. Don’t take advice from those who lived with depression before the fall, allow the blind to lead the blind!

The real freedom is the foster child we routinely abused along the way…?

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