In his review for Hereditary, YouTube film critic Jeremy Jahns said “it does go for the slow burn, which is code for saying it was kinda boring.” I’ve always been frustrated with the oversimplification that a statement like that implies, and it’s a recurring point he makes in many reviews for films similar to last year’s horror hit. With Earthquake Bird, though, I think I finally see his point.
In Earthquake Bird, Alicia Vikander plays Lucy, an American woman living in Tokyo as a translator, meeting another woman named Lily (Riley Keough) while in a steamy relationship with Teiji, a young photographer. About twenty minutes into the film, Lucy is arrested and interrogated about Lily’s death, with the film giving us a nonlinear structure from there. Once we see a clip from Fatal Attraction in the film, the audience is immediately let in on the inspiration for the work as well as the role each character is meant to play: hero, victim, and villain. The only intrigue that the film ever offers after this are fleeting moments where the film might subvert your expectations of who the villain really is, only for it to stick to the blandest possible outcome.
Either way, we are let in on Lily’s death before we even see Lily and Lucy meet, which instantly stunts any appeal that the character might have had since we know she’ll be stuffed into the proverbial refrigerator by the end of their time together. This is the trap that a movie like this falls into, where telling the story simply beat-for-beat might feel like a jarring shift from love triangle to murder mystery. Opting for the nonlinear narrative is also tricky, since we know what to expect and are simply expected to be patient with it as it spends an hour meandering before getting to any of the dirty details. Speaking of the dirty details, this film is uncomfortably horny, a trope commonly used by films like this to trick you into thinking that something important is happening. While I wish I thought myself cool enough to stand over my developing photographs with no shirt on, all I could do was laugh once I saw Teiji engaging in such a bizarre activity. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, but I’ll spare you any further explanation.
The film is at least aesthetically interesting, but is nowhere near where it could be. Still Alice and Colette director Wash Westmoreland seems more concerned with storytelling than visuals, despite some scenes in Teiji’s photography lab giving a bit of low-key colored lighting to contrast the bland exteriors. A substance-over-style approach would be just fine if the story was well paced and concise, but Earthquake Bird just isn’t. When you have a story that isn’t compelling and visuals that aren’t interesting, then you have the ever threatening state known as boredom.
Seeing the clip from Fatal Attraction that sneaks its way into the film made me think about how thrillers do stories like this better. If the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen in your conventional plot, how do you make it interesting? You keep the audience on their toes by just going completely over the top. Fatal Attraction has a boiled bunny, Basic Instinct has the ice pick, Gone Girl (which is pretty unpredictable, but I’m using it as an example nonetheless) has an inexplicable crime scene and a couple of very excessive moments of shown and implied gore. Earthquake Bird just sets up everything and doesn’t bother subverting where any of it’s going, so you just sit there and wait for what you know is going to happen for an hour. This is probably where I should bring up that this film is produced by legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott, who desperately needs to come back and make a movie of his own, because I have found that I don’t trust his choice in investments as much as his artistic visions.
Earthquake Bird is only fascinating in discovering the different ways that it can find to futz around. The characters go hiking in the woods and Lucy gets injured, which doesn’t come back in any way, despite the setup of an injury almost always making tension-riddled climaxes like these at least a little more exciting. I hope that Westmoreland and the three lead actors find their way to better work, but you can safely add this to the list of films dumped on Netflix to garner more hype than it ever would with a theatrical release.