The Big Twist in Netflix's Thriller 'Earthquake Bird' Is That There Isn't One at All
This post contains spoilers for Netflix's Earthquake Bird.
Watching the new Netflix filmEarthquake Bird is an exercise in waiting for the other shoe to drop. Will this thriller actually yield a twist that makes it more than just a retrograde Orientalist fable about two white women in Japan? Or is it exactly what it appears to be? Unfortunately, a turn that renders it more engaging than the stale psychological thriller it is for most of its running time never emerges, wasting good performances from Alicia Vikander and Riley Keough along the way.
Earthquake Bird is a curious entry in Netflix's fall lineup. While it opened in theaters earlier this month, it arrives on the streaming platform with little fanfare, despite the high profile cast. Directed by Wash Westmoreland, best known for Julianne Moore's Oscar-winning Still Alice, the movie is adapted from a 2001 novel by British author Susanna Jones. Vikander plays Lucy Fly, a Swedish expat living in Tokyo in 1989 working as a translator. Lucy's a suspicious character from the beginning, all askew glances and quiet brooding, so it makes sense that, right off the bat, she's called in to answer questions from inquisitive police officers about the disappearance of her acquaintance Lily Bridges (Keough).
After establishing that framework, the narrative then jumps back in time to document Lucy's first encounter with Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), a handsome photographer who stops her on the street declaring that he must take pictures of her. Teiji is as broodingly mysterious as Lucy, and they begin a passionate, if guarded, affair. Teiji is particular about his art and aloof; Lucy is convinced that death follows her wherever she goes. As she tests out the waters of this new love, Lucy is introduced by a mutual friend to Lily, the avatar of the ugly American interloper. Lily is uninhibited and talkative and doesn't speak any Japanese despite the fact that she has decided to move to Tokyo. Lucy immediately identifies her as a threat, but they develop a tenuous friendship that grows more fraught when Lily develops an interest in Teiji.
Vikander and Keough's dissonant energies make their interactions curiously tense. Keough's suspiciously warm vibes bump up against Vikander's chilliness, and their scenes together crackle in a way that the rest of the film doesn't. Westmoreland photographs the landscapes beautifully, but the bigger question is why any of this is taking place in Japan, outside of an outdated desire for "exoticism."
Because, at the end, it's just the story of two white women seduced by an intriguing man in a foreign land. Despite an solid performance from Kobayashi, Teiji is never defined beyond his vaguely sexy menace, which makes the ultimate reveal all the more disappointing. While Lucy has convinced herself that she was in some way responsible for Lily's death -- her jealousy and childhood trauma curdling into self-immolation -- she comes to learn that she is in fact innocent. It's Teiji who was the villain all along, which she discovers when she goes poking around his files and finds a photo of Lily, dead. When Lucy confronts him about his actions, he tries to murder her as well, and she kills him in self defense. It's a clear-cut ending that lands with a thud, especially during a coda that further absolves Lucy for any of the tragedies that have happened in her vicinity.
By the time the credits roll on Earthquake Bird, nothing registers but a hollow, exploitative little story that looks nice, sure, but is of little value otherwise.