Haruki Murakami released a new novel earlier in the year, the quizzically titled Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. It’s a familiar work from a familiar novelist. Its plotting, like so many other Murakami novels, involves a young man coping with the mysterious disappearance of a loved one. What makes his prose so effective is his ability to meld poetic lyricism with a gritty straightforwardness that more often than not makes for a speedy and gripping read. That melding of poetic lyricism and grit applies to Gregg Araki’s adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s novel White Bird in a Blizzard. While unfamiliar with Kasischke’s novel, Araki seems to keep much of the novel’s prose intact through voice over. The result is Kasischke’s delicate text placed in conjunction with Araki’s beautiful compositions. This is an effect that can be sometimes jarring and over-earnest, yet surprisingly touching.
It’s the late 1980s and Kat’s (Shailene Woodley) mother has disappeared. Eve (Eva Green) was not an especially happy woman in her mid-thirties, finding the repetitiveness of domesticity increasingly difficult to handle. And with Kat’s entrance into womanhood, Eve’s feelings toward her daughter grew increasingly volatile - Eve’s jealousy of Kat’s future severed any closeness between them. Eve’s disappearance was inevitable, despite the shock that it instilled on her husband Brock (Christopher Meloni). But Kat, who is exploring her sexuality and on the verge of college, is less concerned with the bizarre disappearance. She compartmentalizes the event, attempting to make sense of her life before addressing the complexities of her mother’s perceived act of selfishness.
While the above plot details may seem conventional, Araki’s approach is anything but. He’s a very skilled visual stylist and calls upon a variety of references to realize the anxieties between Kat, Eve, and Brock. He utilizes flashbacks candidly throughout the opening of the film, whereby Kat and Eve’s tumultuous relationship is given necessary context. Whereas Araki emphasizes rigid symmetry and spatial layers in the present, his technique for these flashback sequences are much more off-the-cuff and vibrant. There’s a sequence where mother and daughter are playing underneath a bed sheet that illustrates the transparency in their relationship that is never seen again. Later scenes are much more uniform in construction, with distance between characters and dark colors becoming the defining visual aspects of Araki’s compositions. Araki’s strengths also rest in his impeccable 80s soundtrack choices, which are essentially composed of The Cure and Tears for Fears. They’re obvious points of reference for the era, but I’m easily won over by these flagrant gestures.
Moreover, Araki surveys a strange terrain. Studies of suburban anxieties are hardly anything new, but it’s a rare occasion for a director to allow his character to run recluse with the material. For example, when combined with the vibrancy and spatial setting of Araki’s compositions, Eve becomes a character who may as well exist in a David Lynch film. Eva Green’s performance is a unique branch of weird, rampant in histrionics and bizarre facial gestures - a physically demanding screen presence through and through. She generates a great deal of the film’s anxieties, though the latter portion of the picture serves to ground those peculiarities within some very raw and emotionally poignant scenes. Elsewhere, Meloni seems to borrow from James Woods in The Virgin Suicides - demasculinized and emotionally hapless, despite his obvious affection for his wife and daughter. Woodley, who has essentially accepted the moniker of Next Big Thing, produces her most fully realized character yet. Her previous performance in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now was exceptional though obviously it was Miles Teller steering the direction of that picture. Here, Woodley is in firm control of the narrative destiny of the picture. Her character steers White Bird in a Blizzard from one about self-discovery and sexual awakening to figuring out the mysterious disappearance of her mother, all the while trying to get her shit together as a college student.
The strengths of the performances and Araki’s formalism are somewhat hindered by the necessity of addressing the text, which despite its verbose flourishes, can sometimes say more than needed. The inclusion of therapy sessions involving Woodley are especially unfortunate scenes, as they dish out details that too obviously guide the loose narrative toward its obvious twist conclusion. But the faults in its narrative construction hardly hamper the overall experience. White Bird in a Blizzard is a remarkably poetic film from a director with a distinct worldview and choice performers willing to realize it with a little bit of grit.