A man dies. His wife (Nicole Kidman) cannot seem to let him
go. Ten years after the death, just before the woman is going
to remarry, a ten-year-old boy shows up, claiming to be her
It’s an elegant, intriguing concept with an inherent allure
for those of us who thrive on speculative fiction. You don’t
have to be a believer in reincarnation to appreciate the questions
it raises. Does love really transcend all boundaries? Which
is more insane, to believe the impossible, or to deny what we
feel? Is love spiritual, or, when it comes down to it, is love
simply a lofty word that we use to describe a rather base and
immagic aggregate of fear of loneliness, infatuation, societal
expectations, physicality and convenience?
If your true love conquered the very abyss of death to be
with you, would you be able to conquer the natural gag reflex
at the idea of playing smoochies with someone who has to take
the child’s dose of most over-the-counter medications?
Would you even want to overcome that reflex? Would you say,
“Sorry, kid, I know you can remember when we used to cuddle
up and watch David Letterman in our skivvies, but those days
are gone. I’ll buy you a Happy Meal, but then you need
to go play with someone your own age”? Would you be patient
and perseverant, waiting for your true love to catch up to you?
Or would you both hop a plane to some less regulated country?
Birth tentatively asks some of these questions, but it
doesn’t really explore them in any concrete fashion, on either
the philosophical or practical level.
In Birth’s first trimester, it gives every sign of being
a competent, thoughtful thriller. Scenes unfold with a slow
icy dread. Both Nicole Kidman (Anna) and Cameron Bright (as
the boy who says he is her husband Sean) have a stillness than
imbues the movie’s long glacial silences with weight and portent.
The ambiguity of the situation gets the audience embroiled in
the same questions which obsess the characters. Is the boy really
Sean, and if so, how to deal with the implications? If not,
why is he claiming to be Sean?
But as the movie crawls on, it becomes clear that the movie
is not so much subtle as it is empty, relying on the audience
to project its own emotions and motivations and reasoning on
the characters, because the characters have none of their own.
We know that they are feeling something, because they
cry and raise their voices and whisper urgently and stare pensively
at each other and into the air, but as to what they feel or
why. . . .
Cameron Bright (The
Butterfly Effect, Godsend)
remains quite captivating throughout the movie and never hits
a false note, even as Birth reveals its defects. But
the more Nicole Kidman’s Anna talks, the more you realize
that though she feels things strongly, there’s no real
substance to her. The only trait that made her appear to be
an interesting character (and that appearance fades as the movie
wears on) is her strong attachment to her dead love.
This being a thriller, there is a twist ending. As it’s
become more and more of a movie convention, the twist ending
in general has lost quite a bit of its shock value. However,
the twist ending still has the power to, in the final minutes,
leave the audience gasping for breath, or at least turn the
film at a ninety-degree angle, giving a perspective that makes
you look back on the previous events with new and eager eyes.
The twist in Birth is a cop-out, though. It cuts off
the questions the scenario asks with the simplest of explanations.
As with any movie as steadfastly unhappy and unentertaining
as Birth, the question then becomes: “What did
the filmmakers intend to impart to the audience? What piece
of enlightenment were we supposed to take away?” As best
as I can parse it, it’s this: Love is the domain of the
ignorant or the cruel.
From any angle, Birth is an unsatisfying, obtuse downer
of a movie. But the defender of the movie might ask, rightly
so, “Ah, but isn’t that exactly what the filmmakers
It’s possible, and I’m honestly not sure. Central to answering
that question is another question: Did the filmmakers expect
us to identify with or sympathize with any of the main characters,
or even to find them compelling?
The little boy remains, throughout the movie, an intriguing
figure, and sympathetic. Aside from that, the only characters
I could sympathize with were very minor ones: the little boy’s
mother, the deceased husband’s friend, and Anna’s
brother-in-law. And mostly it’s that they’re thinly
drawn, harmless, vaguely homey creatures.
The women in Anna’s life, her mother (Lauren Bacall),
her sister (Alison Elliot), and her estranged friend (Anne Heche)
are cold, shrill, or both. The social events we see suggest
a world without any real light. Anna and her fiance Joseph’s
engagement party is as suffocating and joyless as a funeral.
And for all Birth’s menacing overtones, the scariest
scene in the movie is Anna’s mother’s birthday party,
in which the stiff-necked family, with its impeccable manners,
does a ghoulishly soulless pantomime of festive familial bonding.
Even as the family attempts to protect Anna, it’s rather
clear that these people don’t need a boy claiming to be
a dead man to turn their lives into a freakshow. Their daily
existence is creepy enough as it is.
It seems likely that the director did this on purpose. But there
is no breath of fresh air in the movie to contrast the stale
atmosphere. No suggestion that there is any other way of being.
Maybe the filmmakers believe about their creations what Anna
says about herself to her fiance. That the characters aren’t
to be blamed. That it’s not their fault or their responsibility.
That they could behave no other way than the way they behave.
At first maybe we could believe that Anna is struggling to
break free of the gloom, but the more she talks, the more she
seems as lifeless as the rest of them. Kidman exudes as much
warmth and humanity as she did through most of her turn in The
Stepford Wives. At one point, Anna says “I
want to be happy. I want a good life,” but one gets the
sense that she doesn’t know what happiness is, and that
if happiness did find her she’d be quite unequipped to
And then there’s her fiance, Joseph. Anna tells us that Joseph
is patient and kind and loving. But he too seems to be an unformed
shallow lump, a donkey groom: loyal, temperamental, and with
very little going on upstairs.
Again, it’s possible the filmmakers intended to convey all of
the above. But Birth is still as emotionally sterile
and intellectually impotent as its characters. The film and
the characters go through the motions, but nothing ever comes