Release: Friday, November 15, 2019 (Netflix)
Written by: Wash Westmoreland
Directed by: Wash Westmoreland
I spun the Netflix wheel on a Saturday night and landed on this thing called Earthquake Bird. Turns out, it was the caliber movie that rewards in kind the minimal effort I put in to finding it. This slow-burn of a psychosexual thriller has reliable commodities on both sides of the camera, with Wash Westmoreland, one half of the duo behind such well-received dramas as Quinceañera (2006), Still Alice (2015) and Colette (2018) directing and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in the lead. Unfortunately the end result is nowhere near the sum of its talented parts.
Earthquake Bird is an adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. I haven’t read the book but it’s not hard to imagine it’s better, even just by browsing through a couple of critical blurbs. This desultory drama revolves around Vikander’s Lucy Fly, a Swedish expat living in Japan circa the late 1980s who gets swept up into a dangerous love triangle and is named a suspect in the disappearance of the other woman, a young American named Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Written and directed by Westmoreland, the movie incorporates thriller, crime and “romance” elements but fails to make a good, frothy stew out of any of them.
It begins with Lucy being hauled away from her cubicle where she works as a translator — currently on subtitles for Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller Black Rain (a cute little nod to him serving as producer here) — and to the police station where she vexes the authorities with her evasive answers and soon thereafter the audience with her complete lack of personality. You get these movies all the time where the narrator is an unreliable messenger, but Earthquake Bird steps it up a notch by providing an unreliable narrator in an unreliable framing device. What begins as a focused (if not harsh) police interrogation soon gives way to an ocean of flashback. Any sense of narrative structure or cohesion gets abandoned in favor of pure mood and atmosphere, qualities emphasized by Atticus Ross’ foreboding score.
Lucy traces her steps back to the day she met the mysterious and oh-so-handsome Teiji (Japanese dancer Naoki Kobayashi in his first English-language role), a noodle shop employee who hobbies, somewhat obsessively, as a photographer. His fascination with puddles is soon replaced by a fixation on her pretty visage in black-and-white. She becomes his muse, they enter into a relationship wherein honesty and openness are valued above all else. Physical intimacy is much lower on the list. Their dynamic carries the emotional conviction of a stapler. Yet there’s a symmetry between their worlds of quietude and isolation that makes them kindred spirits. There’s logic to them being together but no feeling in the togetherness.
Enter Lily, who wastes no time ingratiating herself in the lives of these two lovely-looking and lonely people. Thank goodness for Keough, who kicks the movie into a higher gear with her energetic presence. Her character is also more interesting. She’s introduced at first as a nice but needy new acquaintance, then a romantic foe and possibly even destroyer of worlds. Lucy is in a very delicate place, her life a constant shuffle as she seems always to be outrunning something. She has this weird relationship with death, the grim reaper always trailing her. Initially the tension between the two women isn’t purely adversarial; there’s something free and uninhibited about Lily that Lucy wants and also envies. When the trio embark on a weekend getaway to the scenic Sado Island, the sexual tension builds. A strange development further destabilizes an already awkward situation.
Ever since the Swedish dancer-turned-actor blew up on the scene in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in 2015 I don’t think I’ve seen a performance of hers I haven’t liked. Lucy Fly isn’t exactly vintage Vikander but I blame more of my apathy towards her on the writing rather than the acting. This is a very restrained performance that’s more technically impressive than emotionally resonant — her Japanese, at least to my untrained ears, sounds perfect. Her thousand-mile stare is unsettling. Still I find it pretty terrible that her most interesting, defining trait is the black eye she carries around. And her backstory, when it’s finally barfed out in a much-delayed expositional sequence toward the very end, isn’t nearly as interesting as one hopes it would be for such a protracted build-up.
As if to remind us the title means something, periodic earthquakes rumble through the story in a kind of motif. In the immediate aftermath, a shrill birdsong alerts the town the coast is clear. It very well could be my brain shorting out but I didn’t find any relevance between this and the story at hand. Undoubtedly there’s some deeper metaphorical meaning behind it but the movie doesn’t do near enough to warrant the amount of effort it takes to decode that. Never mind its human Rubik’s cube of a leading lady.
Recommendation: What starts out as a kind of Lost in Translation meditation on loneliness and isolation (d)evolves into a run-of-the-mill, Girl on the Train-type murder plot that really doesn’t go anywhere. The characters, save for Riley Keough’s, are totally uninteresting and not worth the effort it takes to understand what drives them. That’s really disappointing when you’re talking about Alicia Vikander and the very interesting-looking Naoki Kobayashi. Le sigh.
Running Time: 107 mins.
Quoted: ““If every time I took a photo it took a piece of your soul, would you still let me?”
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Photo credits: IMP Awards; Polygon