There’s an obvious sadness in Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander), an expat living in Japan in Wash Westmoreland’s new film, Earthquake Bird. There are dark memories hidden in Lucy’s past that she’s held deep down, and the first time she shows joy is upon meeting Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), a photographer with whom she soon starts a relationship. It’s that kind of emotional freedom that seems like it could do Lucy some good. When Lucy eventually admits “death follows me,” from the look on her face, this statement could certainly be true. But this idea – like many of Earthquake Bird’s various ideas – doesn’t leave much of an impact, just one of many half-baked ideas tossed into a story that doesn’t have the heft of power that we see through Lucy.
Earthquake Bird tries to be many different things, and doesn’t nail any of them. At first, it seems like Lucy might actually be a harbinger of doom, especially since the film starts with her friend missing, and an innocuous greeting to a visitor startles the guest into falling down the stairs, breaking her neck. But then, Westmoreland – who writes as well as directs this story based on the Susanna Jones novel of the same name – switches things up again, introducing another visitor from America, the non-Japanese speaking bartender Lily (Riley Keough). Lily and Lucy strike up a friendship, but soon, Earthquake Bird becomes a paranoid relationship drama, as Lucy worries that Lily might be trying to steal away Teiji. Westmoreland throws in a murder mystery for good measure, and a potential love story between Lily and Lucy, with the occasional shade of Persona.
Vikander sells the part of Lucy quite well, as it’s clear this woman has been hurt deeply in the past, and her face can’t hide the pain inside her. But since the film shows nothing but a morose Lucy, even when it comes to her relationship with Teiji, it’s hard to understand why she cares so much that she might lose him. Teiji is almost a recluse, whose idea of fun is photographing Lucy in his depressing apartment. There’s no good times for Lucy to pine for when the film becomes about the “bad times” in this relationship.
Keough, however, is a breath of fresh air here, a vibrant character that enlivens this dour relationship with some levity. When Keough agrees that the group should go out for some fun, it’s a relief not for the characters per se, but for the audience to see them somewhere outside of Teiji’s sullen apartment.
Westmoreland’s script unfortunately plods along, where even possible murders and schizophrenic terrors land with a thud. Westmoreland throws in the occasional “twist,” but they play like slight speed bumps in this bland mystery.
At the very least, Earthquake Bird is technically impressive. The shots of Japan, from cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung are gorgeous, from quiet mountaintops to dark noodle shops. Yet in this attempted thriller of sorts, the most gripping aspect is the score, from Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne, filled with a sense of foreboding that provides a tone and mood that the rest of the film can’t keep up with.
Earthquake Bird is too scattered and lacking any suspense to make this story work. Westmoreland’s telling of this story attempts to be thrilling, yet ends up airless and dispassionate. Earthquake Bird wants to be an earth-shaking experience, but instead, it’s hardly even a tremor.