After a couple of prestige pictures - one (Still Alice) co-directed with his long-term partner Richard Glatzer, one (Colette) without - writer-director Wash Westmoreland has set off for Japan with Netflix money and a Susanna Jones novel to make the kind of peculiar thriller today's studio system wouldn't touch. If Earthquake Bird connects in any way beyond a certain literariness with Washmoreland's previous work, it's as a showcase for a more than capable actress. In this instance: Alicia Vikander, with her usual fresh-faced radiance dialled down several notches and a twitchiness that somehow speaks to the title, playing a repressed translator in 1980s Tokyo. Possessed of two names - Louisa Fly (pronounced flew) to the authorities, Lucy Fly (as in, well, fly) to associates - and a hard-to-place accent (is she Scandinavian? British?), the character is as shifty as the ground beneath everybody's feet; as we first join her, she's being taken in by police investigating the disappearance of a visiting American. This prompts what's essentially a long flashback in which we find out how Lucy/Louisa flew here, how she did or didn't get on with Riley Keough's Lily (the American in question) and - perhaps most pressingly of all - how she got so strange.
I suspect that structure may have panned out better on the page than it does on screen, but the blue-chip casting initially lends a suspense to the set-up: any student of human nature will be wondering who or what transformed one of the world's most beautiful women into the hollow-eyed wretch now set before us. That casting also establishes a smart contrast in those scenes where Lucy first meets Lily, the tamped-down Vikander set against the big, expressive performance - wide eyes, effusive hair - Keough is giving as a vivacious bobblehead. (We miss her sorely when she's gone.) Here - and this is surely what Jones was getting at - are the flipsides of femininity: the light and the dark. That still feels naggingly superficial, and not really enough to sustain the interest over Earthquake Bird's two hours. Both geographically and generically, Washmoreland is in unfamiliar territory here, and while he earns points for seeking to stretch himself and not falling into the traps the industry might have set for him after Colette, he's not quite as assured with this quasi-Hitchcockian material as he needed to be: an underpowered nightclub scene could actually do with a touch more David Lynch, part of a sluggish midsection where you come to feel audience and actors longing for some revelation, some release. Oddly enough, with a different producer putting their foot on the gas, Earthquake Bird might have succeeded as a thinking person's erotic thriller: a threesome Lucy imagines herself in with Lily and the local shutterbug who squeezes between them (Naoki Kobayashi) is heading in that direction. With the generally unerotic Ridley Scott as its guiding light, however, all it can provide are glimpses of something tantalising in the fog thrown up around what proves a batsqueak of a mystery. File under intriguing misfire, and scroll on.
Earthquake Bird is now streaming on Netflix.