White Bird in a Blizzard at first seems like a curious choice for noted auteur Gregg Araki. An adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s novel of the same name, it reads almost like a staid character based melodrama rather than something the noted queer filmmaking auteur could sink his teeth into. There are elements of the darkness and campiness that made Araki’s films notable in the first place throughout, but only at the end does it ever feel like something the filmmaker would make. As such, the well acted and certainly somewhat entertaining film feels like something that only exists for a final big reveal without too much going on in-between the margins.
Shailene Woodley stars as Kat, a teenager living a typical small town existence in 1988 trying to deal with the disappearance of her wickedly over the top mother (Eva Green). She lives with her shell shocked, but well meaning father (Christopher Meloni, sporting windbreakers and a Tom Selleck-ian moustache), desperately craves sex from her now curiously distant boyfriend across the street (Shiloh Fernandez), and she’s secretly sleeping with the grizzled detective (Thomas Jane) who’s handling her mom’s missing persons case.
Eventually there will come a point where Kat will put things together and realize that events surrounding her mom’s disappearance aren’t on the level, but the film takes its sweet time to get there. Even worse, once it finally arrives, anyone who has been paying attention to the dialogue and performances – and anyone who has ever seen a Gregg Araki movie in their life – knows precisely where the film is headed and how things will end. There’s no element of surprise here, and it’s not because Araki’s script is doing a poor job of hiding it. His direction does a terrible job of hiding it.
Compared to something like David Fincher’s recently released Gone Girl – a film that uses obviousness to its advantage in tricking the audience – Araki does nothing to build sympathy or empathy for his characters. They are simply tools used to move plot points and the quirks of other characters along. The situations these characters find themselves in don’t always make logical sense, and the film kind of treats Kat like a dumbass kid who can’t put two and two together for the entire film (oddly this might be the one film where Araki talks down to his main character instead of building them up). This wouldn’t have been problematic if Araki let his cast settle on a singular tone instead of lurching wildly between farce, drama, suspense, and erotic thriller modes. The blending of styles here isn’t invigorating, but it’s certainly watchable in a way that’s barely above shrug-worthy.
The cast is all doing interesting things with their roles, though. Woodley, unafraid to show her sexual side in the film’s litany of nude scenes, looks like she’s actually having fun in the role, even when Kat’s at her surliest. She’s actively trying to bring the most out of the character, and any sympathy Kat elicits is definitely more her doing than Araki’s problematic construction would allow for. Meloni and Fernandez do the most they can as the affable doofus dudes in Kat’s life, both holding back a deep, simmering rage that’s easily felt beneath the surface. In flashback sequences to the past, Green goes the full Joan Crawford to play the once great lover turned bitter housewife. Every scene with Woodley and Green together kills. Jane gets cast almost precisely because this is the ultimate “Thomas Jane type character” possibly ever written, so naturally he’s good. There’s also a great supporting performance from Angela Bassett as Kat’s shrink, in a role that feels like a pleasing meta commentary on the sometimes sloppy nature of everything else in the plot.
Araki is still a great filmmaker. Despite the script’s issues and the direction’s oblivious nature, the pacing never wavers and the visuals are as stunning as anything he’s delivered in the past. He definitely takes a major page from the Wes Anderson playbook here, with almost every shot appearing meticulously centred (in collaboration once again with cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen). It’s a gorgeous movie to watch unfold even if it doesn’t have a lot to say.
The commentary on loveless marriages, suburban angst, growing up in a single parent home, and sexual desire doesn’t bring anything new to the table, For Araki, the leap to working with bigger stars, a relatively bigger budget, and with decidedly more mainstream material feels like a step back. It’s always disappointing when a film clearly only exists for the final few minutes, but when that film inadvertently shows its cards a bit too early, not even a director as talented as Araki can really salvage things.