Earthquake Bird, 2019.
Written and directed by Wash Westmoreland.
Starring Alicia Vikander, Riley Keough, and Naoki Kobayashi.
A young woman living in Tokyo becomes the prime suspect in a horrific murder when her friend goes missing in the wake of a tumultuous love triangle.
Acclaimed filmmaker Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice, Colette) tries his hand at the thriller genre with his latest feature, and on the basis of this effort he’s more than up to the formal requirements, yet his screenplay – Westmoreland’s only solo script to date – ultimately lacks the psychological nuance to do justice to Susanna Jones’s dishy 2001 novel The Earthquake Bird.
Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander) is a Swedish ex-pat living in Japan as a translator and still struggling to fully feel at home. Everything changes, however, following a chance encounter with charming photographer Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), and the pair quickly fall for one another. But their togetherness is interrupted by the flirtatious, exuberant American arrival Lily (Riley Keough), driving an unmistakable wedge between their idyllic romance, not long before Lily disappears and Lucy is fingered for the crime.
As an exercise in slow-burn atmosphere, Earthquake Bird initially has a lot going for it, even accepting the trite use of the comically overdone interrogation room framing device while Lucy is quizzed by some Japanese cops about Lily’s disappearance. But in its best moments Westmoreland’s film is quietly sinister, fusing its characters and themes to drive a more conventional erotic thriller plot – albeit a low-key rendition of one.
With a story focused on two women seeking belonging in a non-native locale, Earthquake Bird is a precis on culture clash wrapped around a missing-person mystery, wrapped around a peculiar love triangle. Westmoreland’s script digs into not only the differences between Japan and the rest of the world, but also between the disparate shores of the country itself.
Moreover, the dangers of romanticism are highlighted, embodied best through Jack Huston’s minor struggling musician character, who freely rubbishes the “uptight” U.K. in favour of this apparently – but not really – more cosmopolitan metropolis.
No psychosexual thriller can function without sexual tension, and while this is initially roused well enough, Westmoreland doesn’t really do much to up the temperature thereafter. It doesn’t help that the chemistry between Vikander and Kobayashi is tepid at best, with their romance feeling so thoroughly rushed on-screen. Where is the red-blooded lust that any film of this type desperately needs?
The refusal to fully embrace the campier aspects of the story, at least until late in the game, suggest a movie embarrassed by its own sure silliness, wishing to pretend it’s anything other than what it is. How much audiences will be able to appreciate the messy end result will depend entirely on their own tolerance for slow, laboured sequences which tease much while doing precious little.
But the film’s biggest problem is its majorly lacking psychological component; the characters are too opaque and unlikeable, such that it’s tough to care much about the various rug-pulls Westmoreland attempts to execute. The mental exercise of getting a handle on this troubled trio is fairly intriguing for about half the movie, after which it just becomes dispiriting, leading to a clunky, dull behemoth of a third act.
It’s especially a shame that the uneven script undermines a trio of enthusiastic performances. Vikander, whose post-Oscar career has been curiously airless, doesn’t quite exit her rut here, but she tries hard to bring emotional truth to a tricky character. The script is ultimately her undoing, but she’s swinging hard.
Riley Keough is meanwhile well-cast as beautiful-but-vapid D.C. transplant Lily, getting to rip through most of the movie’s well-humoured dialogue even if her character similarly remains a cipher for most of the runtime.
It’s a role that could so easily have invited a cartoonish portrayal from a lesser actor, yet Keough keeps Lily well modulated. The trio of ambiguous leads is completed by Kobayashi, surely the least interesting character and performance by virtue of this being a women’s tale, but he similarly convinces that he could either be a neat, eccentric young man or something much worse.
Technicals are also well over-the-odds for the material being worked with; Chan-wook Park’s regular DP Chung Chung-hoon brings a sensual quality to the frequently neon-splashed visuals, and in a moment surely inspired by Bergman’s Persona, expertly aligns Vikander and Keough’s faces to resemble one single human face just as they’re preparing to go to sleep. It’s a shot that, quite honestly, probably belongs in a much better movie. The visuals are tidily complimented by a hypnotic, droning musical score from Atticus Ross and his brother Leopold.
If one is being totally honest, it isn’t often that the London Film Festival – being a “mop-up” fest, as it is – gets much in the way of prestigious world premieres that aren’t homegrown productions, and so it’s not terribly surprising that this film, left off the fall festival circuit and due to stream on Netflix next month, isn’t up to much. There certainly was hope, though.
Sumptuously filmed yet dramatically inert, Earthquake Bird squanders a game cast on a low-energy, relatively toothless psychosexual thriller.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.