Netflix’s new mystery film Earthquake Bird brings back memories of the gossip columns of 2012, when Twilight star Kristen Stewart (then in a relationship with Robert Pattinson) and then-married Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders had an affair. She was vilified, even though Sanders was equally culpable, and both of them publicly apologized. There’s a similar dynamic at play in the love triangle in Earthquake Bird — for most of its runtime, it casts the other woman as the story’s villain. In fairness, each character’s apparent role shifts by the movie’s end. But it’s too little and too late to counteract the feeling that the blame for a bad situation might be unfairly placed.
The film, directed by Wash Westmoreland and based on the novel of the same name by Susanna Jones, opens with Japanese police questioning expat Lucy (Tomb Raider’s Alicia Vikander) about the disappearance of her friend Lily (Riley Keough). The story plays out partially through flashbacks. Lucy, who’s fluent in Japanese and in love with the culture, has been living in Japan for five years when she’s first introduced to Lily through a mutual friend (Jack Huston), who asks her to help get the newcomer acclimated.
Lucy is immediately dismissive of Lily, her exact opposite in style and demeanor. Lucy wears muted colors and mostly keeps to herself, whereas Lily dresses and speaks loudly, and can’t stop expressing her amazement at how different Japan is from America, in comments that are unfortunately, occasionally racist. Though they eventually begin getting along, as Lily’s friendliness gets the better of Lucy, another source of tension arises as Lily also begins to grow closer to Lucy’s boyfriend Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi).
Lucy largely aims her ire at Lily, even when Teiji tells her he’s deliberately behaving more warmly toward Lily in hopes of making Lucy jealous. (That’s a red flag for any relationship.) Lucy claims she isn’t jealous, but she obviously is, to the point where the line between reality and imagination starts to blur. As her interrogation in the present-day timeline continues, that jealousy keeps consuming her, building to a feverish peak of animosity toward the missing woman.
As the truth behind Lily’s disappearance and how Lucy and Teiji tie into it becomes clear, Earthquake Bird shifts the finger of blame and morphs from a tale of sexual jealousy to a story about how to process guilt. The twist upon a twist is more interesting than “love triangle gone wrong,” but perhaps less sensationalist. The bigger problem is that it’s introduced so late that it can’t counteract the film’s stodgy lead-up.
Wash Westmoreland’s last film, Colette, helped reclaim the life of French novelist, actress, and journalist Colette, whose husband published her work under his name. Earthquake Bird feels like a step back from that, muddling a potential thread on how women are often pitted against each other. (There’s a regrettably Swiftian contrast between Lily and Lucy, i.e. “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts, she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.”)
The intricacies of the story’s context also get somewhat lost. Though it’s set in Japan in the 1980s, there’s no sense of period beyond the occasional outdated outfit and a scene set in a club, and the cultural divide between East and West comes across as relatively slim. Lily’s culture shock wears off quickly, and the other details that would lend Earthquake Bird more of a sense of specificity are limited to a conversation Lucy has about whether Teiji’s features are more Western or Eastern (“Ketchup face” vs. “Soy sauce face”), and Lucy’s protest to one of the detectives she’s no different from Japanese women. (That objection largely seems to involve the stereotype of East Asian cultures being more reserved and deferential, and the assumption isn’t explored any further.)
Westmoreland and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (Oldboy, The Handmaiden, It) at least give the film a sense of style, lingering on the scenery and on subtly shifting expressions to make the growing unease more palpable. In particular, they make Lucy’s unraveling feel genuinely frightening, instead of unexpected. Smooth, still shots become choppy and shaky, flitting around Vikander as she grows more and more panicked. The movie’s overall pace is slow, which makes it notable — and unsettling — when the action speeds up.
All three leads are terrific — especially Vikander, whose Japanese is impressive — but they’re working with material that doesn’t measure up to their talents. The number of themes present in the film might work in literary form, but as a film, Earthquake Bird feels rushed and incomplete. The characters suffer from that lack of focus; Lily is the most underserved, as she’s made into an antagonist for much of the movie. The dial on that antagonism shifts as Earthquake Bird becomes more of a thriller than a melodrama, but it shifts too late.
Earthquake Bird is streaming on Netflix now.