Review: ‘Birdland’

by Andrew Parker

The endearingly weird and strange Birdland feels like a bunch of hard-boiled genre throwbacks cobbled together, but presented with a modernist sheen, and damned if it isn’t supremely entertaining. It’s a familiar feeling, sexually driven detective story, but also wholly unique and captivating. The fact that it’s a fictional film coming from noted Canadian documentarian Peter Lynch makes Birdland’s stew of surreality, borderline camp, and sexiness even more fascinating. It’s a hard film to pin down, but it’s slippery in almost all the right ways.

The time shifting narrative follows former Toronto police detective Sheila Hood (Kathleen Munroe) and her gradual fall from happiness and comfort. She’s being interrogated by her former partner (Benjamin Ayres) because her ornithologist  husband, Tom (David Alpay), has been implicated in a pair of murders. The deceased are Tom’s secret mistress (Melanie Scrofano) – the daughter of a wealthy power company magnate (Stephen McHattie) – and the woman’s volatile former fiancée (Joris Jarsky). Sheila knows more about the murders than she’s letting on, and she was initially involved in an investigation looking into the daughter’s possible sabotage of her father’s company. Also of interest to the police is Sheila’s illegal use of hidden cameras (taken from work without permission) that have been placed around her house and at her husband’s workplace because she suspected Tom of having an affair. Sheila’s interrogation, her own personal undercover investigation, her partner’s legwork, and the footage provided from the cameras will all hold pieces of the whodunit mystery.

The who and the why of Birdland begin to feel secondary almost immediately. First and foremost, Lynch (Project Grizzly, Cyberman) wants to emphasize mood and style. The screenplay from Lynch and co-writer Lee Gowan takes considerable inspiration from pulp novels of the 40s and 50s, but also a healthy (or possibly unhealthy depending on one’s taste) dose of cues from the psychosexual works of early Brian De Palma and later Joe Eszterhas, coming across as a lesser film made by the former or possibly the best film made by the latter. Birdland is dripping with sexual tension and menace, but it’s also admirably weird and boundary pushing in terms of storytelling and visuals.

Lynch embraces Toronto’s strange blend of brutalist and modernist locations, basking in the sparkling, twinkling light of downtown’s office tower pocked skyline. Bathing his settings in whites, grays, blacks, and very few colours that are designed to pop or distract, Birdland takes place in a sleek, efficient world that perfectly reflects the characters placed within it. They’re stuck in ruts that will lead them all to dark, previously unthinkable places. Every character in Birdland feels like a product of their harsh, but opulent environment. A great filmmaker can make sure that the settings will inform the tenor of the characters, and Lynch and his team of cinematographers, production designers, and location scouts accomplish this beautifully.

The cast is led by Munroe’s remarkably multi-layered leading performance, which boasts the perfect blend of confidence and beguilement. Much like the film built around her growing and ebbing internal madness, Sheila’s disposition and goals can vary wildly from scene to scene, and it’s always engaging to watch just where Munroe and Lynch are going to take the character next. At a certain point, the sheer twists in the character and the dynamic of how she relates to the other characters (especially the deceased woman’s sly sister, played skillful and slinky by Cara Gee) become more stimulating to think about than the solution to the mystery.

The mystery itself is a bit overstuffed, bouncing back and forth between issues of sexual fidelity, shoehorned jazz references, an only partially realized ecological subplot, and a conclusion that stops just shy of going completely off the rails and into unabashed camp instead of playfulness. But the centering of a murder around a fracking operation is almost the only connection Lynch includes to his previous works. On the whole, Birdland might be Lynch’s most ambitious and daring project to date; a quantum leap in vision and difficulty for him as a filmmaker and artist. It’s also the kind of project that you could look at and think about how it all could have gone horribly wrong. The fact that it didn’t and that Birdland turned out so entrancing suggests that a new era in Lynch’s career has begin, and I’m thrilled to see where he goes next with it.

Birdland opens at Carlton Cinemas on Friday, January 26, 2018. It’s also available of VOD the same day. It will open at The Globe Theatre in Calgary and Rainbow Cinemas Golden Mile in Regina on February 9, and it will play select dates at the Cinematheque in Vancouver starting on March 6.

Check out the trailer for Birdland:

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