Director: Wash Westmoreland
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Riley Keough, Naoki Kobayashi
The spirit of the 80’s erotic thriller is alive if not exactly thriving in Wash Westmoreland’s second UK release of the year following January’s cinematic release of Colette. Earthquake Bird arrives on the small screen, beaming straight out of Netflix and into your living room, which seems fitting as the film feels defiantly boxed in, like the compact residences of its Tokyo setting.
Alicia Vikander stars as Lucy, a Swedish translator living in Japan who has cultivated a standoffish temperament. She, along with her select friends, find comfort in the country’s blank slate appeal; having moved there to redefine themselves, to start again. Her English friend Bob (Jack Huston) encourages Lucy to help integrate a ditzy new American arrival, Lily (Riley Keough). Lily sees emptiness or silence in Lucy’s past while reading her palm as their relationship becomes spiced with sexual potency. Lucy is also reeling from an impulsive new relationship with reclusive photographer Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi) with whom she shares an outsider’s temperament. Lucy has an appetite for danger too, it seems. She doesn’t bat an eye on seeing Teiji’s rickety murderer’s den for the first time.
These relationships snake around one another like the intersecting trains in the film’s opening shot, frequently at cross purposes. The story is also framed as a flashback, with Lucy resentfully answering questions for the local police about Lily’s apparent disappearance. This gives the narrative the requisite dark trajectory for categorisation as a thriller.
Aesthetic indicators and montage sex scenes tip-off the desire for Earthquake Bird to be considered as a a successor to the raunchy adult-oriented films popular at the time of its setting. 9 1/2 Weeks... Basic Instinct… But it rarely rises to the occasion. Westmoreland shows little of the auteur bravado seen in the works of Adrian Lyne or Paul Verhoeven. His crisp images – clean, uninspired – rarely if ever translate a sense of emotional intensity… or even availability. Earthquake Bird has the same sense of middle-distance safety as an ITV drama series. It is rigid like its protagonist, too easily written-off as hard and unyielding.
Its possible this is intended to reflect a perceived rigidity in Japanese culture, or even the tentativeness of exploring same sex desires in 1989, but these reads – if accurate – are insulting to the recent past, a time frequently as bold and adventurous as our own.
The material is frequently disappointing, leaning hard into cliché. A rash that physically represents a character’s emotional corrosion… A person instantaneously disappearing behind a train… An eleventh hour emotional collapse… It’s all quite tired.
This stiffness is disappointing from Westmoreland, who showed more kinship for gender bending sensuality in his prior period drama. The radically different setting here suggests a commendable urge from this Brit director to avoid pigeonholing, but the unoriginal narrative and pedestrian pacing do little to inspire. Add to that a rather tired suggestion that sexual exploration ought to end in punishment or tragedy, and Earthquake Bird starts to feel not like a homage to the past, but simply out of time.
At the time of writing Westmoreland’s Colette has recently been added to Netflix, so is housed in the same place. If its a director’s primer you’re after, you’ll be better served there than here. Same goes if you simply want to enjoy your evening, really.