Collin's been a movie critic since 2009. In real life he works in marketing and is also a novelist ("Good Riddance" published in Oct 2015).
Buried somewhere under the foundation of the latest throw-away Netflix thriller is a halfway-decent, moody suspense flick. The problem is, it’s buried so deep that no one can even begin to know it’s there, much less find it. And, after only ten or so minutes of watching Earthquake Bird, it’s difficult to even care. Someone like Steven Soderbergh could have had a field day with this thing—it’s based on the spooky, award-winning novel by Susanna Jones—but writer-director Wash Westmoreland seems to think that interesting locales and a (on-paper) twisty plot are enough to make it work.
Alicia Vikander stars as Lucy Fly, an expat working as a translator in 1989 Tokyo. When she is brought in for questioning by the police after the disappearance of her American friend Lily (Riley Keough), Earthquake Bird becomes one long flashback, designed to slowly and deliberately allow us to begin putting the pieces together. Early on, Lucy meets Teiji (J-Pop star Naoki Kobayashi), a creepy, stalker-type who snaps her picture with his old-school camera one day as she’s strolling through a park. She’s intrigued and quickly agrees to a lunch with him at his noodle place—inviting everyone in the audience to yell at the screen in disbelief that she’s not reporting this guy to the police, or, at the very least, kicking him in the shin.
Later, when Lucy is introduced to Lily through a mutual friend, we feel ourselves being grabbed by the hand and led down the primrose path of love-triangle thrillers. Clearly Lucy offed Lily after Teiji took an interest in both women, right? No spoilers here, but the bigger issue is that, at this point, everyone in the audience may well be hoping all three of these characters get run over by a bus pronto.
Vikander, who has dazzled in everything from Ex Machina to The Light Between Oceans, mopes through Earthquake Bird like a soulless waif, and Kobayashi is even worse—the living embodiment of a yawn. We’re supposed to buy into their turbulent East-West romance, as if it’s some kind of Fatal Attraction/Body Heat kind of thing, but it’s hard to do anything other than ponder what either of these characters see in each other. Keough is the lone bright light in any of this, providing the film with a much-needed pulse every time she’s on screen.
Westmoreland has certainly proven his abilities before—he guided Julianne Moore to an Oscar in 2014’s Still Alice—making the doldrums of Earthquake Bird that much more puzzling; he does nothing at all to make anything here the least bit intriguing. He’s unable to coax any amount of chemistry between any of the actors, fails to demonstrate any sense of how to drive a plot forward, and seems content to wrap things up with a whimper of a final reveal. Earthquake Bird may be one heck of a book, but the transition to the screen will leave you wanting to fly far, far away.