Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Arliss Howard, Anne Heche, Peter Stormare
Running Time: 100 min.
Release Date: 2004
** (out of ****)
Birth is a strangely compelling motion picture, but more importantly, an extremely frustrating one. It starts off with an intriguing premise, but then bombards us with unearned scenes of shock and sensationalism meant to make us feel as uncomfortable as humanly possible. It also features some of the most irresponsible adult characters I've ever seen in a movie. They should all be thrown in jail for child abuse and endangerment. Even worse, after the film has drained us emotionally and presented a sensitive subject matter in the most insensitive way, it fails to give us any kind of resolution or closure.
The film is mean-spirited and at times incredibly difficult to watch, but yet frustratingly you can't take your eyes off it. The film moves at a snail's pace yet I sat transfixed by the disaster that was unfolding in front of me. That it's so beautifully shot and acted only adds to the frustration because you wonder what this film could have been with a better script. This is the kind of bad movie that can only be made by talented people.
The film opens memorably with a jogger collapsing and dying in New York's Central Park. We flash forward ten years to find out that man was Sean and now his widow Anna (Nicole Kidman) is on the cusp of marrying wealthy businessman Joseph (an incredibly bland Danny Huston). While attending the birthday party of her mother (Lauren Bacall) the family is greeted with an unexpected guest. He's a 10-year-old boy coincidentally named Sean (a creepy Cameron Bright), who claims he's Anna's dead husband and doesn't want her to marry Joseph.
Right off the bat, we already have some serious problems. First of all, we have no idea who Anna's deceased husband Sean is as a person. All we know is that he's a jogger who collapsed in Central Park. It would have helped to establish who he was and his relationship with Anna in the opening minutes so we actually care when this kid shows up claiming to be him. Instead, it just seems creepy. That this child acts like he just stepped out of Stephen King's The Shining doesn't help matters. Another detail about this 10 year-old: his parents let him roam the streets of New York City alone at night hailing taxi cabs and crashing strangers' parties uninvited. At first, because of the tone of the picture and his demeanor I thought he would be a supernatural being, which would be fine because then he wouldn't have parents. So you can imagine how shocked I was to find out he not only has parents, but that they could care less what he's doing.
All of this seems almost normal compared to what follows and how the characters choose to deal with this bizarre situation. Anna's family is determined to "get to the bottom of this" and find out if Sean really is Anna's husband. May I ask why? Shouldn't they instead be getting this obviously disturbed kid some help? Wait…I have a better idea. Instead why don't they grill him about the intimate details of Sean and Anna's life that he couldn't possibly know… or could he? Once he answers those questions he's ready to move in, have ice cream, go on dates and take baths with her. After all, she has to find out the truth. You think this kid will have some wild stories for school?
You may be wondering where Anna's fiancée Joseph is in all of this. Well, he's kind of pissed. This leads to a scene in the house that's supposed to be dramatic, but instead evokes unintentional laughter. That this guy enabled the kid into their lives just makes it even stupider. I almost forgot to mention a married couple (played by Peter Stormare and Anne Heche) resurfacing from Anna's past who we're led to believe have some connection to all of this. I'd love to tell you I was trying to figure out what it was, but I was too busy wondering why Anne Heche's eyebrows and lips were mysteriously missing. I was also way too happy to see Peter Stormare in a role that didn't involve him killing people.
It's clear what the movie is trying to do, but how it executes it is another matter altogether. They're trying to convince us Anna is becoming obsessed with this boy because she can't let go of the memory of her husband, who this kid may be the reincarnation of. That's how the filmmakers can justify the uncomfortable scenes we're forced to endure between the two of them. Except they're wrong. All this kid has proven is that he can robotically recite information from Sean and Anna's past. He hasn't taken on any of Sean's personality (whatever that may be since the movie refused to let us know who that man was), therefore all the scenes between Anna and young Sean come off as a grown woman attempting to seduce a creepy 10-year-old boy.
There's been much controversy surrounding the infamous bathtub scene with them, but that's actually harmless since they're not actually in the tub together and the scene was spliced together in post-production. The real disturbing scene is in the ice cream shop when you'll want to cover your ears when you hear a woman having a conversation like this with a little boy. The movie is not about pedophilia, but because of the lazy script and Jonathan Glazer's irresponsible direction (which includes seductive lighting and uncomfortable glances) the movie feels like it's all about pedophilia. Here's a question: Would this movie have been made if the gender roles were reversed?
There's also a serious problem with tone in this film. You're never quite sure what it is. A horror movie? A drama? A mystery? It even has a Merchant/Ivory 1990's art house feel to it. The tone just all over the place. Alexandre Desplat's score is fantastic, although I have to wonder whether it was appropriate for the film or even if it was a good thing that I noticed it that much. Come to think of it, any score probably would seem out of place for a film this bizarre. The best part of the movie is the work from director of photography Harris Savides (Gus Van Sant and David Fincher's cinematographer, whose work includes The Game and Elephant) who adds a beautiful, layered richness to the film that makes it compellingly watchable. He's hands down the best working cinematographer today and without him it frightens me to think how much worse this movie could have been.
Probably the saddest part of this entire enterprise is that Nicole Kidman gives one of the best performances of her career and she justifiably earned a Golden Globe nomination for it. The camera loves her as she's never looked as good as she does here and manages to make all this garbage somewhat convincing, selling it like a pro. You really do feel the pain of this woman over the loss of her husband. Too bad we have no idea who he was. It's not Cameron Bright's fault he's asked to act like the spawn of Satan so he does a reasonable job conveying the emotions, or lack of them, required. I just hope the poor kid isn't traumatized for life.
I could actually understand how someone could appreciate this film (notice I didn't say enjoy), but I can't understand how anyone could sit through it more than once. It's just too draining. Plus, this isn't the kind of film where repeated viewings reward the audience with its secrets. There are no secrets. I'm all for ambiguous endings if it's called for, but when a movie sets up a big mystery and forces the actors to endure uncomfortable scenes like the ones here, it better pay off. Maybe there will be a sequel (Birth 2?) that addresses all the unanswered questions. After all, I'm still curious what happened to Anne Heche's eyebrows.