Review by Sean Boelman
During the French New Wave, the term “auteur” was coined to distinguish the more authorial filmmakers of the movement from the studio-influenced role that was common for directors at the time. In this era of the big-budget blockbuster, as franchises continue to dominate the box office year after year, this delineation is becoming more and more important. The auteur still does exist, although the number of filmmakers that fit this profile is dwindling quickly.
Wash Westmoreland, who is behind such acclaimed movies as 2014’s Still Alice and 2018’s Colette, is one filmmaker that may be deserving of that title. His earlier films being co-written and co-directed with his late husband Richard Glatzer, Westmoreland has went on to prove himself a formidable force behind the camera even when solo.
Westmoreland’s newest movie, Earthquake Bird, is adapted from the award-winning novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. After debuting at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival to mixed reviews, it received a limited release in theaters before streaming on Netflix. Sadly having been met with little fanfare, this is sure to go down as one of the year’s most underappreciated movies.
The film follows a translator being questioned by the police after one of her friends, an expatriate, goes missing and is presumed dead. This mystery, though at times conventional, is thoroughly effective and entirely riveting because of expertly-crafted suspense. A flashback structure tied to the interrogation sequence allows the audience to be drawn into the story early on, and the various misdirections keep viewers guessing until the end.
Like many of Westmoreland’s other films, this movie follows a protagonist as they desperately vie for control of an aspect of their life, causing them to go over the edge. In Still Alice, Westmoreland (and Glatzer) explore what it feels like to lose control to a disease. Colette focuses on an artist trying to gain control of her own work. The script for Earthquake Bird deals with a different aspect of control and how it affects the character: jealousy.
Unlike Westmoreland’s other films, the protagonist of Earthquake Bird, Lucy, isn’t completely approachable. Instead, the script presents her in a more or less apathetic light. Though she is very much a victim in this situation, there is something about the character that feels consistently off. The audience is unquestionably supposed to feel bad for her, yet there is also a significant distance formed between the character and the viewer by Westmoreland.
However, this does tie into the trend of Westmoreland’s recent work to feature a protagonist learning to understand her emotions regarding an oppositional force. Whereas Still Alice shows a woman trying to cope with her mortality, and Colette approaches a woman as she tries to fight the patriarchy, the protagonist’s arc in Earthquake Bird is more akin to an identity crisis. Lucy spends a majority of the film fighting over the one person who seems to understand her, not realizing that she doesn’t even understand herself.
Alicia Vikander gives a wonderful performance in her leading role, returning to more sophisticated fare after taking a shot at some more mainstream flicks (Jason Bourne and Tomb Raider). Her performance is perfectly mysterious and filled with nuance, doing a wonderful job of fitting the overall tone of the movie. Her subtlety during the interrogation sequences is particularly effective, as it infuses these parts with legitimate emotion rather than restricting them to being purely expositional.
One of the best parts of Westmoreland’s films is that he is able to attract some of the most talented actresses working to star. Westmoreland’s ability to guide talent into giving wonderful performances has been noted in the past, Julianne Moore having won an Academy Award (among other honors) for her turn in Still Alice, but Keira Knightley in Colette and Vikander in Earthquake Bird also gave some of the best performances of their respective years, regardless of their lack of recognition.
Westmoreland has also attracted some amazing behind-the-camera talent to work on his movies as well. All of his films look and sound beautiful, with wonderful scores, camerawork, and production design. For Earthquake Bird, Westmoreland collaborated with Chung Chung-hoon, one of the most talented cinematographers in the business right now. This allows the movie to be totally immersive on a visual level, drawing the viewer into the world of 1980’s Tokyo.
Although Earthquake Bird hasn’t been met with as warm a reception as it warrants, it is a beautiful and fascinating neo-noir. His films attracting A-list talent both behind and in front of the camera, and his scripts containing wonderful character work and interesting themes, Wash Westmoreland has certainly earned the title of the modern auteur.
Earthquake Bird is now streaming on Netflix.