There’s an alluring ambience to Earthquake Bird (2019), an intriguing international mystery that never fully commits to revealing the kind of story it’s telling. Set in the late 1980s, it involves a young Swedish expatriate named Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander), who lives in Tokyo working as a translator. Lucy is haunted by an inchoate past that has kept her isolated, but two newcomers come along to penetrate her emotional armor. The first is an enigmatic photographer named Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), who quickly develops into an intense romantic interest. The second is a ditzy American named Lily (Riley Keough), whom she reluctantly befriends and helps acclimate to living abroad. These two dramatically different people transform the life Lucy has built for herself, in good ways — until they meet each other. The new group dynamic steers Lucy’s life in uncomfortable new directions, revealing the emotional scars underlying her put-together facade.
The aspect of Earthquake Bird I most appreciated was its subtle atmosphere, gentle but unsettling; it manages to lay thematic groundwork without ever telegraphing its structural beats or even a steady genre allegiance. By turns, it presents as mystery, romance, dark fantasy, and psychological character study, but in a careful, blended way that doesn’t favor any one angle of interpretation. This makes for a tantalizing guessing game, despite a flashback structure that might have given the game away. Since it begins with Lucy’s interrogation by police, we know it’s a mystery with potentially violent repercussions, but director Wash Westmoreland — who adapted from the novel by Susanna Jones — keeps Lucy’s emotional cards close to the vest, so that it’s unclear who to trust. Vikander’s understated, sympathetic performance contributes greatly to the air of mystery, her expressions and deliveries ably suggesting unseen depths. Keough and Kobayashi, meanwhile, ably draw out the dueling aspects of Lucy’s personality with excellent support. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one initially, but it ended up surprising me with its confident execution and satisfying resolution.