'Earthquake Bird': Film Review

Earthquake Bird Still 2 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix
Barely registers on the Richter scale.

Alicia Vikander stars in Wash Westmoreland's Netflix-bound, Ridley Scott-produced mystery thriller about a lethal love triangle in 1980s Tokyo.

A psychologically fragile young woman becomes caught up in a sexually charged murder investigation in writer-director Wash Westmoreland's Tokyo-set mystery thriller Earthquake Bird. Based on a prize-winning 2001 crime novel by English author Susanna Jones, this solidly crafted Ridley Scott production is sprinkled with classy ingredients, including Alicia Vikander as headline star. But it is also a fairly flat treatment of over-familiar plot elements, and fatally low on the key psycho-thriller elements of suspense, surprise and dread.

The British-born, Los Angeles-based Westmoreland has a pretty strong critical and commercial track record, notably as co-director of the Oscar-winning Julianne Moore drama Still Alice (2014) and the Keira Knightley-starring period piece Colette (2018). Earthquake Bird brings A-list collaborators to B-movie material, but to mostly uninspired effect. Following its world premiere at London Film Festival, it is heading for a limited theatrical release on Nov. 1, then streaming on Netflix from Nov. 15.

The story takes place in Tokyo in 1989. Lucy Fly (Vikander) is a prim Swedish translator who has lived and worked in Japan for five years, long enough to consider herself a virtual native. Having learned to repress guilty childhood secrets for decades, Lucy lives a highly regimented, emotionally chilly existence. Until one day, out of the blue, when she is hauled in for interrogation by stern homicide detectives. Body parts have been found in Tokyo harbor that may belong to Lucy's missing friend Lily Bridges (Riley Keough), an extrovert American exile who was last seen leaving the Swedish woman's apartment.

In a series of loosely interlocking flashbacks, the film chronicles the chain of events leading up to Lily's disappearance. Despite their very different personalities, Lucy and Lily become friends at the suggestion of English expat and aspiring rock star Bob (Jack Huston). Meanwhile, Lucy begins a tentative romance with Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), an archetypal tall dark stranger who catches her attention by rudely taking her photo in the street. The intense, secretive Teiji seems to both fascinate and scare Lucy. “What are you really thinking?” he demands. “Tell me everything... I dare you.”

As Lucy's feelings for her enigmatic Japanese lover deepen into obsession, Lily's flirtatious interest in Teiji soon becomes a source of simmering jealousy between the two women. Unspoken suspicions finally boil over during a shared trip to the picturesque Sado Island, when Lucy is mysteriously taken ill and all but abandoned by her two travel companions. In the explosive recriminations that follow, ancient family secrets and unreliable confessions muddy the waters.

A key strength of any superior genre thriller is making even the most unlikely plot twists and contrived character flaws appear plausible, but Earthquake Bird barely seems to believe even in its own pulpy premise. With this guilty pleasure factor dialed right down, Westmoreland is stuck trying to squeeze excitement from wooden performances, ponderous dialogue and poorly explained hallucination scenes, not to mention minimal sexual chemistry between his passionless leads. He hardly helps his cause by letting the plot's two most significant deaths happen offscreen, and giving Lucy a back story of historical wounds that feels like glib, by-the-numbers pop psychology.

On a craft level, the pic is a polished package. Mostly working within a crisp, dark, autumnal color palette that suits the noir-ish mood, Westmoreland and his Korean cinematographer, regular Park-chan Wook collaborator Chung Chung-hoon, methodically work through a checklist of Japanese tourist sights, from Mount Fuji and Tokyo Tower to bullet trains, kimonos and karaoke bars. Oscar-winner Atticus Ross also provides a suitably moody score, creepy and subtle one minute, urgent and percussive the next.

Credit is due to Vikander for breathing life into such a flatly written, fairly unsympathetic protagonist, as well as delivering lengthy passages of dialogue in Japanese. A brief clip from Scott's Japan-set crime thriller Black Rain (1989) is also a neat little insider homage. But for all its smart plumage, this bird never takes flight. Ultimately, Earthquake Bird remains grounded because most viewers will have trouble buying into its absurd plot, and too few will even care.

Production companies: Scott Free Productions, Twenty First City
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Riley Keough, Naoki Kobayashi, Jack Huston, Kiki Sukezane, Ken Yamamura
Director-screenwriter: Wash Westmoreland, based on
The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones
Producers: Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Michael Pruss, Ann Ruark, Georgina Pope
Cinematographer: Chung Chung-hoon
Editor: Jonathan Alberts
Music: Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross
Venue: London Film Festival

108 minutes