When it comes to exploring themes on sexuality in film, few contemporary auteurs have been more radical, and more divisive, than Gregg Araki. A pivotal figure in the New Queer Cinema movement during the early 1990s, and highly considered to be the “bad boy” of the bunch, Araki made raw, rebellious cult movies early on in his career that were praised by some and abhorred by others, such as The Living End (1992), Totally Fucked Up (1993) and The Doom Generation (1994). He also directed what I consider to be one of the best films of the 2000s, Mysterious Skin (2004), based on a novel of the same name by Scott Haim, which tells a tragic, gut-wrenching story of how the lives of two young men are traumatically affected as a result from being sexually abused by their baseball coach when they were only eight years old.
Now, 10 years later, his second book-to-film adaptation, White Bird in a Blizzard, has been released into theaters. It received mixed reviews from critics and audiences, currently holding a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 46 reviews), and a score of 50 out of 100 on Metacritic (based on 20 reviews), with most critics stating that it’s a film that has no idea what it actually wants to be about.
The first time I saw White Bird in a Blizzard, I admit I had similar feelings of frustration and bafflement for most of its 91-minute runtime. Initially, the plot seemed messy; its coming-of-age tropes rudimentary; and after one particular line that a character delivers about halfway through the film, the solution to its central missing-person mystery shamelessly predictable. But then the final 10 minutes of the film unveil a shocking twist that not only broke my heart, but made me completely change my perspective on what had come before it, forcing myself to question whether or not I was far too impulsive to judge what Araki was aiming to convey from a thematic standpoint. Upon subsequently watching the picture for a second and third time, I now believe my preliminary thoughts on the film were deeply misguided, to the point that it has now become one of my favorite films of the year.
A brief plot summary, to start: Adapted from a young-adult novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke, the picture stars Shailene Woodley as Kat Connors, a 17-year-old girl whose sexual awakening begins around the time that her depressed, alcoholic mother, Eve (Eva Green), vanishes from her suburban home in California without a trace. Distraught, Kat’s father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), puts out a search for his wife, but Kat herself doesn’t seem too concerned about the whole situation, too preoccupied by fulfilling her sexual proclivities with her hunky new boyfriend, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and the lead detective on the case (Thomas Jane) to emotionally invest in her estranged mother’s disappearance. Yet, as the years go by, Kat can’t help but feel haunted by the unexplained loss of her maternal figure, and secrets from the past begin to emerge with tragic consequences.
The key to grasping the film’s emotional power is in recognizing that the film is not about how Eve disappeared; it’s why she vanishes that’s important to the outcome of her life and the lives of those who are connected to her. This, of course, is where the aforementioned third-act twist comes in.
***SPOILERS for White Bird in a Blizzard from this point forward***
This final revelation—in which the viewer witnesses Brock strangling Eve after she catches him having an affair with Phil—not only effectively pulls the rug out from underneath the viewer in terms of its plot structure (along with clarifying why the film takes place from 1988-1991, a pivotal period of time during the rise of the AIDS epidemic), but powerfully clarifies exactly what the film is examining: people using sex as a method to block out the pain of their loneliness while conforming to gender stereotypes.
In Brock and Phil’s case, they’re committed to projecting an image of themselves as straight, dominant male figures to fit into a heteronormative society. Ironically, however, by wearing these masks, they only alienate themselves further, developing an even greater thirst for physical intimacy as a way of escaping guilt-ridden feelings of isolation.
The same notion of living according to gender-based/sociological archetypes could be applied to every character in the film, regardless of their sexual orientation. Take the brief sequence where Eve and Brock examine their future home during an open-house meeting, for example. Sandra Valde-Hansen’s cinematography embellishes the setting with a diluted tint of yellow as the couple walks through the front door, fabricated expressions of happiness lit among their faces. “It’s perfect, right?” Brock asks to his skeptical wife. “It’s everything I’ve ever wanted,” she replies with a transparent smile. It’s the only moment of the film in which these two characters exchange a line of dialogue where they seem content with one another, when in reality they’re anything but.
“They were the quintessential American couple, the future unfurling before them like some endless magic carpet,” Kat narrates amid a shot of Eve’s blank, expressionless face. This transitions into a montage of Eve ironing clothes, vacuuming floors, and wiping down tables, with Kat stating, “…Once the house was immaculate, and everything was in its place, she had nothing to do but plant the emptiness of days to come.” Brock brings home a crockpot in the following scene and is stunned by Eve’s indifferent response to the kitchen appliance, unaware of how reducing her to a homemaker and depriving her of any sexual intimacy has sucked her into a void of despair.
Later, in a drunken haze, Eve attempts to seduce Phil while he and Kat do homework in the basement. Brimming with jealous rage in regards to her daughter’s sexual appeal, Eve dons a slinky blue and black skirt, telling Phil that he should stay for dinner since she’s making her “famous beef wellington.” This is the second time in the film that we’ve seen her attempt to seduce him with a meal—but then Brock comes home, disapproving of Eve’s sultry attire, and when she opens up the freezer to find nothing but rotting meat, the family resorts to the kitchen. Affirming that the four of them go out to dinner, Brock asks Eve what she wants, to which she replies, “I don’t want this…I don’t want any of it. You…This house…I want my fucking life back.”
This is where Kat’s confusion and sexual urges stem from: Her parents have been reduced to cardboard caricatures, and as she grows more steadily into adulthood, observing her mother and father silently suffering in their cliché-ridden abyss, sex becomes a primal drug to numb out her overwhelming adolescent angst.
The day that Eve goes missing, Kat calls Phil to hang out, seemingly indifferent to her mother’s disappearance, but eager for her boyfriend to come visit. Dumfounded by how cold and apathetic he is to her request, even using the need to catch up on homework as an excuse—because, as that final twist suggests, he knows exactly why Eve went missing—Kat desperately retorts, “Phil, we haven’t had sex in like, over a week…I miss fucking you.”
When Phil won’t satisfy Kat’s sexual needs, she begins sleeping with the macho Detective Scieziesciez. The detective’s acquiescence to Kat’s advances may make him seem like a creep for having an affair with a 17-year-old girl. However, it becomes clear that after witnessing several horrific crimes from being on the job—such as an obese man being burned alive who “had so much body fat [he was] like a human candle”—Scieziesciez uses sex for the same reasons as everyone else in the film. It isn’t until he informs Kat of his belief that her father murdered her mother when Kat breaks everything off with him, her orgasm-laden coping mechanism reduced to a personified reminder of exactly what she’s trying to forget.
All of this is chronicled during the first 80 minutes of White Bird in a Blizzard in a way that is bound to make you feel emotionally detached from the characters and their behavior onscreen. But as I’ve come to realize over repeated viewings, this is not a storytelling flaw. In fact, the picture is putting you in the same psychological state of its protagonists: alienated, confused and searching for meaning. It isn’t until the devastating conclusion—in which sex is conveyed as an honest, poignant form of human connection for the first time in the film, between two men, no less—that everyone’s emotions come into fruition, leaving the viewer engulfed in as much blistering heartache as the characters themselves. It’s a scorching commentary on how gender and sexuality are vital factors in establishing our personal identities, but also how those factors shouldn’t define how we are viewed in society as a result.