A talented Canadian documentary filmmaker debuts his fiction feature debut, featuring plenty of sex, murder and intrigue. So why doesn’t Birdland work?
Let’s bitch it out…
Birdland is centered on a mystery that is introduced early on and then reexamined often: why did ornithologist Tom Kale (David Alpay) murder two people? Initially this seems like a complicated, murky question, but somewhere around the film’s halfway point, it becomes clear that director Peter Lynch, best known for his documentary work, is more interested in composing arresting visuals and playing with genre tropes than constructing a satisfying film. Birdland is a sexy noir thriller that is gorgeous and icy, but also impenetrable and numb; the result is a film that is frustrating more often than it is captivating.
Blame Lynch for contributing 50% of the problem (he co-wrote Birdland‘s screenplay with Lee Gowan). While his visuals are immaculately composed and striking, the script is a mess. It struggles on the most basic level to make the characters relatable, believable or fully formed, which makes it impossible to take an interest in their various couplings and betrayals. And there are plenty of twists and turns to keep track of; so many it begins to seem as though Lynch and Gowan don’t know what else to do but introduce another level of deception and intrigue to keep the story moving forward. Alas this only works for roughly half of the film’s runtime before things simply start to feel overly repetitive and exhausting.
The film opens with Detective Calvin (Benjamin Ayres) interrogating Tom’s long term girlfriend, Sheila Hood (Kathleen Munroe). Hood is a former police detective, and her obsessive need to investigate has clearly bled into her relationship. It is revealed (in time, but out of order) that she and Tom were once happy, but then he began having an affair and she became obsessed with spying on him. As played by Munroe, whose presence is as striking here as it was in the underappreciated Starry Eyes, Hood is the unreliable protagonist of your film noir dreams. She’s equal part gumshoe and femme fatale; just as capable of solving Birdland‘s two murders as she is at committing them. The fact that you never quite know how to feel about Hood is evidence of how talented Munroe is.
Unfortunately our inability to suss out Hood’s allegiance and motivation is indicative of the weaknesses of Lynch and Gowan’s script. Not unlike the worst of Raymond Chandler’s detective novels, Birdland confuses incoherent plotting with Rashomon-style storytelling; revisiting key scenes repeatedly over the course of the narrative when different pieces of the puzzle are revealed only works stylistically. Narratively, however, it makes it seem as though Birdland is devoid of fresh ideas, content simply to reanimate the same scenes over and over again.
The fact that the plot is threadbare and all of the characters surrounding Sheila are paper thin certainly doesn’t help: Tom’s obsession with Lana Turner-esque Merle (Melanie Scrofano) feels underexplored and undercooked, as does her rivalry with duplicitous sister Hazel (Cara Gee) and the extent of her environmental disagreements with her fracking magnate father, John James (Stephen McHattie). The less said about Merle’s hotheaded husband Starling (Joris Jarsky), the better.
What makes Birdland worth recommending is Lynch’s beautiful, cold aesthetic. The film was shot on location in Toronto and the city is somehow a generic metropolis, an alienating prison of glass and neon lights and a beautiful, dangerous den of sex and sin all at once. This is an exquisitely beautiful film, filled with model-beautiful people doing bad things both with and to each other. A character’s death is filmed like a perfume commercial, a picturesque slow motion fall framed against a black background. A sexual experiment with a BDSM rope sling receives the same treatment. The deceased bodies of birds that Sheila and Tom photograph early in their courtship are so gorgeous that their taxidermied bodies become art pieces in their apartment.
These striking images are so artfully composed that it’s not hard to get sucked into Lynch’s aesthetic. Throughout the first half of the film, when the mysteries still seem intriguing and the details of Tom’s infidelity with Merle are still driving the plot, Birdland plays like an important addition to the neo-noir canon. Around the halfway point, when that plot thread runs out of steam and Hazel and Starling take on a larger role, it becomes clear that there’s virtually no substance beneath Lynch’s glassy surface and the rest of the film feels like a repetitive slog.
The Bottom Line: Lynch is clearly a talented director and I have no doubt that he’ll go on to make something truly fantastic, but his initial foray into fiction features betrays the need for a more experienced writer.