Reviewed by Steve McGowan
Earthquake Bird is a film about a young white woman named Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander) living in Tokyo as an expatriate who works as a translator who becomes a suspect in a murder investigation when a friend of hers, Lily Bridges (Riley Keough), goes missing. Directed by indie art film director Wash Westmoreland, it is an adaptation of an award-winning same name crime novel by Susanna Jones.
Set in 1989, before ubiquitous cellphones or internet usage, Lucy is a woman with a troubled past who moved to Tokyo years ago to start a new life, disconnected from everyone she ever knew back in her home country of Sweden. Fluent in Japanese and English, she works as a translator. At the beginning of the film, while she is scribbling out subtitles for a film, she is picked up by the Tokyo police under suspicion of Lily’s murder. Lily had been missing, and is feared dead, and Lucy was the last person to talk to her. The cops bring her to the police station where she is interrogated by the investigating officers, and as she tells the story we are shown flashbacks as to what happened up to that point.
Lucy got to know Lily through a mutual friend, another expatriate named Bob (Jack Huston). Bob is a fun-loving Brit who hangs out in karaoke bars, and it is he who tasked Lucy with showing Lucy around as she had only recently arrived in Tokyo. Lucy agrees to this task reluctantly; she thinks Lily is a happy-go-lucky ditz who needs constant babysitting, and she doesn’t have the patience for that. However, they become friends eventually, but things go south between them when Lily sets her eye on Lucy’s boyfriend, an enigmatic Japanese man named Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi). Lucy first met Teiji by chance, as he snaps her picture on the street while doing street photography. The pair hit it off immediately, and Lucy becomes Teiji’s photography muse. Upon hearing about Teiji, Lily pesters Lucy into introducing them, and there a love triangle develops.
The film then plays off Lucy’s jealousy towards Lily as we see more flashbacks as the three of them interact, first going on group outings, and then as Teiji and Lily grow closer and closer, we are meant to question if Lily may have killed her. These relationships form the crux of this thriller/mystery, but I have to say there is very little thrill and the mystery isn’t terribly compelling. The reason for this is that the pacing is incredibly draggy, and there is zero chemistry between Lucy and Teiji. Teiji just comes across as an aloof jerk, instead of being dark and mysterious. Alicia Vikander does her best to portray the emotionally troubled Lucy, but she just comes across as emotionally blank most times, and other times just sulky. The best performance we get from the film is Riley Keough who appears to be an air-headed American, but there’s some subtlety to her that suggest there’s more beneath that cheerful exterior than meets the eye. It is hinted that Lucy may be sexually attracted to Lily, and those hints of attraction came across more convincingly electrifying than Lucy and Teiji’s.
There’s a subplot in the film where Lucy is part of a string quartet with some Japanese ladies, but that entire thread went nowhere and dragged the film even more. There is a shock death that’s thrown in for no reason at all, other than to make the tone more disturbing than it already is, and to make Lucy’s life more miserable. By the time the mystery is resolved, few people will be surprised at the revelation.
I am suspecting that the story did not translate well from novel to screen, and thus they ended up with a plodding, lifeless thriller than fails to thrill.
I give Earthquake Bird two out of five karaoke bars.