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Birth
Reviewed by Jason Myers, © 2004

Format: Movie
By:   Jonathon Glazer (Director)
Genre:   Thriller
Released:   October 29, 2004
Review Date:   November 04, 2004
Audience Rating:   Rated R
RevSF Rating:   3/10 (What Is This?)

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 husband.

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 intended?”

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 appreciate it.

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 of it.

Pun intended.

RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers thinks that Nicole Kidman’s shoulder blades alone are more erotic than Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Mischa Barton and Cindy Crawford combined.

 
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