Don't Get Caught Out in Numbing White Bird in a Blizzard
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- Updated Jan 23, 2015
DVD Release Date: January 20, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: October 24, 2014, limited
Rating: R for sexual content/nudity, language and some drug use
Run Time: 91 min.
Director: Gregg Araki
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Shiloh Fernandez, Christopher Meloni, Gabourey Sidibe, Dale Dickey, Mark Indelicato, Thomas Jane, Angela Bassett, Sheryl Lee
Some people go to the movies to make themselves feel good. They want something to make them laugh, or to make them have a "good cry." They want romance or adventure—something, anything, that will make them feel in a world that can so easily beat us down.
On the other hand, every now and then a movie comes along that can best be described as numbing—defined more by the absence of feeling. These stories drain us and leave us feeling robbed of some piece of ourselves when we exit the theater. Maybe it's only our time that has been stolen, or worse, some part of our emotional being, but these films desensitize viewers to the very pain they portray, either by treating human problems in a ham-fisted or heavy-handed manner, or by assaulting the viewer with too much graphic content.
White Bird in a Blizzard is closer to the first category. Awkward and misguided before an insulting final revelation, it feels like a project that simply didn't come together. The pieces are there, but even if they had been better assembled by director Gregg Araki, Blizzard would still be a dreary, downbeat story with a too-tidy wrap-up.
The film may be most memorable as a vehicle for Shailene Woodley, whose star has risen considerably since she made a great impression as George Clooney's daughter in Alexander Payne's The Descendants (2011). Woodley solidified her reputation playing alongside Miles Teller in the under-seen The Spectacular Now (2013), and then carried two 2014 blockbusters: The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent.
The actress's performance in White Bird in a Blizzard is revealing, but not in ways that will deepen appreciation of her talents. While Woodley does what she can with the material—she's an aimless student named Kat in the 1980s who is grappling with her mother's disappearance—the actress reveals more of herself physically than she does emotionally in Blizzard, having sex for the first time and then quickly learning the art of seduction. But rather than have her character explore her own pain and the reasons behind her actions, Araki emphasizes the mystery behind the disappearance of Kat's mom. The resulting movie feels like it wants to distract us from the very thing that's most interesting—Kat's self-destructive streak, and the causes behind it.
Kat comes home one afternoon to find her mom, Eve (Eva Green, 300: Rise of an Empire), in bed and on the verge of a breakdown. Through Kat's tedious, overused voiceover, we learn that her mother has been threatening for years to leave her father (Christopher Meloni, Man of Steel). When Eve disappears and foul play is suspected, Kat sorts through her feelings with the help of a therapist (Angela Bassett, a great actress given next to nothing to do here) and visualizes herself calling to her mother through a snowstorm (hence, the title of the film).
Outside of her therapy sessions, Kat spends time with friends (Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato) and has a sexual awakening, losing her virginity to a neighbor (Shiloh Fernandez, Red Riding Hood). She then puts the moves on a detective (Thomas Jane, The Mist) investigating the disappearance of Kat's mother.
Green's vamping as Kat's mom injects brio into the staid storytelling. However, her unhinged performance is at odds with the film's somber tone, as well as with most of its other characters. Meloni looks appropriately lost as a man whose unhappy wife has vanished, but until late in the film, when he moves on to a new romance, his dazed performance doesn't give the film any added emotional layering.
Like 2008's The Life Before Her Eyes, White Bird in a Blizzard is an adaptation of a novel by Laura Kasischke. The Life Before Her Eyes was directed by Vadim Perlman (House of Sand and Fog) and starred a then up-and-coming Evan Rachel Wood. The film explored the possible effects of a traumatic experience on its lead character decades after the event had occurred... and it was a financial flop. The Life Before Her Eyes shares with White Bird in a Blizzard a last-minute reveal that sheds light on the fate of certain characters, but in Blizzard the gambit feels like a cheat—a too-easy explanation for all that's come before.
Ecclesiastes tells us that God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil (12:14). White Bird in a Blizzard offers some sense of judgment—and therefore closure—for its characters in regard to its central mystery, but it's far too little interested in its characters' other troubling deeds. While not celebrating their behavior, the film offers next to nothing in reflection on that behavior and provides little takeaway value. Perhaps the book is better, but on the evidence of this stultifying film, why bother reading it?
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; numerous F-words; several other uses of foul language and explicit sexual descriptions
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: Drug use; drinking of beer; Eve drinks in front of Kat and Phil; friends take a smoke break; drinking of champagne; Kat’s dad is passed out in a bed, next to an empty liquor bottle
- Sex/Nudity: Kat is sexually active with her boyfriend and with a detective; through a snowstorm, we see a nude woman with her arms covering her breasts and legs curled to her stomach; Kat's breasts are seen multiple times; Kat says her parents sex life "sucked," and we see images of a book cover with the title "Achieving Orgasm," as well as a pornographic magazine cover; fear of AIDS is mentioned; kissing; Kat and Phil kiss while on a bed, and he places his hands on her clothed backside; Eve walks in front of Phil in a nightgown that’s described as nearly see-through; a detective tells Kat that he knows she came to his place to seduce him, and she removed her top; two men shown in bed, under the covers
- Violence/Crime: Kat’s mother’s disappearance is investigated and is suspected as a crime of passion; description of a hanging
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: Kat's parents are in a troubled marriage before the mother disappears, with the mom threatening to leave the dad; a mother and father confess their lack of love to their daughter; long after the disappearance of Kat's mom, Kat's dad tells Kat that he's seeing someone
Publication date: October 23, 2014