What Netflix’s “Bird Box” Teaches Us About Mental Health
If you’re like the 45+ million people on Netflix recently, you’ve likely watched the streaming site’s recent hit, “Bird Box.” Starring Sandra Bullock, the movie takes you on a roller-coaster thriller ride that is part horror, part sci-fi, part what the fuck. If you haven’t watched it yet, you may want to quit reading past this point, since there will be some serious spoiler alerts.
To sum up, a small group of random people join together in survival as an unseen creature energy goes around forcing people to kill themselves by using eye contact. Shielding themselves by using blindfolds, the group eventually dwindles down, as the unseen creature kills off each person, one by one. Melanie (Sandra Bullock) and Tom (Trevante Rhodes) are left, together with two children, who they must protect. Of course, Tom dies, and in the movie’s sole-spirited fashion, Sandra is left to bring herself and her children to safety. Blindfolded. And fucked. Up the creek with no paddle. Literally.
Caught up? No? Neither is anyone else, don’t worry. However, even though the movie can solely be viewed through the lens of entertainment and serious pants-shitting before bedtime, it is also riddled with symbolism, not the least of which points to mental health.
First and foremost, the movie’s evil villain is an unseen energy, something akin to a demon, that forces people to end their life. Not shown in any format, face, or representation — other than a gust of wind and a freaky-ass whisper — the demon affects each person it touches, differently. It also brings up something deeply personal in each character, which begins a slew of stark symbolism throughout the movie. When Melanie is knocked to the ground in the first outbreak of chaos, the woman who helps her hears and sees her dead mother, as she proceeds to get into a burning car and end her life. When Olympia delivers her baby, but is confronted by asshole Gary, she runs through the glass window to her death. Each instance where this unseen creature forces a person to kill themselves is unique to that individual, as is the manner in which that person decides to end their life. We would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the elephant in the room — suicide. Surging as one of the biggest epidemics in our society today, suicide is just now becoming a topic which we’ve given true light. A silent killer, it does not discriminate. Remember when Melanie talked about Jess after her death? She said, “Jess does not get sad. She is not suicidal.” How many people have we known or read about, whose families never suspected that they were troubled, and yet they took their own life? Too many. As in the movie, every person is affected by their own demon differently, and that demon comes looking, more often than we’d like to acknowledge.
As the character development unfolds, we learn a bit more about each person. When they face their death, we also learn a bit more about what struggles they faced that may have led them to fall pray to the unseen creature. Tom was in the army, deployed to Iraq where he saw death and chaos. His story about the man walking his children to school in a war-ravaged country spoke to the emotional toll his role in the war may have taken on him. Olympia was a “spoiled” woman expecting her first child. Detached from the support of her family, she felt ill-prepared and a “burden” to others. And even though that struggle was brought on by the circumstances of what was happening in her city and to them all, her struggles represent something deeper. Just like Tom’s. Melanie was an independent woman, brought up in an emotionally-depraved home, forced to toughen up and settle for the role of “asshole” to ride the waves of life. Her need to survive overpowered her desire to dream, and her own lack of emotional support detached her from being a mother, and from connecting to others. This was evident in her paintings, in her talks with Jess, and even in her talks with her obstetrician, who comes back in the end as a huge symbolical wrap-up! Each character brings something to life, which runs deeper than just a movie plot. Tom stands for any arm vet suffering with PTSD. Olympia and Melanie both stand for women suffering with postpartum depression before, during, and after childbirth. Remember Gary? He may have been portrayed as crazy, but Gary is actually just anyone who has battled their mental illness vividly. His dark and frantic sketches are his struggle and his battle, and perhaps not always successful. Which brings me to the most important point of this review…
The unseen creature is depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders, trauma, abuse, war, PTSD, postpartum depression. It is mental illness. And it plagues us all. From Russia to China to Korea to France to America. It does not stop, it does not slow down. It does not discriminate. It does not care who is rich or poor or married or single. The reason why eye contact is such a pivotal factor in the movie is because our eyes are the windows into our soul. When we hide behind our screens or our doors, we may feel safe and in control. As the characters put on their literal blindfolds to feel safe, we put on our figurative ones to shut out that which we don’t want to face. But our eyes cannot lie. Our mental illness comes undone in truth and honesty when we look into each other’s eyes, and the unseen creature is the demon who forces us to come undone. To see. Which leads me to the last point. Gary is a powerful, pivotal character. Because he has seen his demons, he is detached from needing to hide his illness. So he does not need the blindfold. In fact, he is happy and overjoyed to see the unseen creature, so much so that he wants everyone around him to do the same. Gary stands as every person who has given in to their mental illness. While he is in the house, he keeps repeating “see! see! isn’t it beautiful?” He is referring to seeing and opening our eyes to that which we try to subdue and stuff down and pretend that it doesn’t exist. And even though his character is portrayed as bad, what he wants is actually what everyone with a mental illness wants — to be seen.
Before Tom killed himself, he killed the man who went after Melanie and the kids. That shows courage, bravery, strength, resilience. All in the face of something much greater that he couldn’t control. That also shows that no matter how it looks from the outside, a person dealing with mental illness is not void of love, compassion, and empathy — for themselves or others. It’s just that what they’re battling is much stronger than we’ll ever know.
In the end, our eyes are always open. But it’s what we choose to see that makes all the difference. We can see our death or we can see our salvation. I hope you hear the birds.