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Let’s say a woman loves a man. Let’s even say she’s devoted to him. This is how Birdeater begins, more or less. Young Irene (Shabana Azeez) adores her fiancé, Louie (Mackenzie Fearnley). The two seem a happy enough pair. They visit the local pools in their leafy little suburb, they have sweet-looking sex in their light-filled apartment and make wedding arrangements over breakfast. Let’s say Louie takes care of Irene. He brings her tablets when she’s anxious, or unwell. Irene can’t stand to be away from Louie, a fact about which he is relatively accommodating, even kind. Does Irene  work, we wonder? It seems to be only Louie who’s doing anything that looks like money-making, plugging away at spreadsheets in his home office while Irene lingers nervously in the doorway behind. Let’s now say that the only law of intimacy is that parties to sex, or a relationship, are entitled to organise either arrangement according to what works for them. And that what exactly this looks like is a matter for them only. What’s really wrong, then, with Irene and Louie’s odd romantic dependency? Who could say their own sex, or their own relationship, is actually organised otherwise?

Birdeater is a genius bit of filmmaking from co-directors and writers Jack Clark and Jim Weir, cleverer with its subject matter and tougher on its audience than it ever leads us to think. Is there not a shadow of violence hanging over Irene and Louie’s happiness – over the tablets Louie keeps feeding her, or her strange reluctance to lock in the wedding despite the fact that she cannot function without Louie around? The surprise in Birdeater is not that the answer is yes – not really. It’s that the film doesn’t tell us how to feel about that violence once it’s revealed. Let’s say each of us wants something from the person we’re sleeping with. Let’s say what we want is often not in our own, or anyone  else’s, best interest. Who’s to blame for that structural failure? Who becomes the victim, and of what?

Birdeater’s central action kicks off when Louie invites Irene to his buck’s party, a lowkey affair in the Australian bush thrown by a gang of his old school friends: Charlie (Jack Bannister), Dylan (Ben Hunter) and Murph (Alfie Gladhill). Charlie’s girlfriend Grace (Clementine Anderson) even tags along to keep Irene company; for reasons I still can’t make sense of, Louie has also invited Irene’s close friend and possible ex-lover Sam (Harley Wilson), who seems to offer a kind of counterpoint to the crude masculinity of Charlie, Dylan and Murph, at least insofar as he is poly, and bi. The first forty-odd minutes of the film are innocent enough: Charlie, Dylan and Murph fuck around like the private school oldboys they are; the relatively more sensitive Louie tries to reign them in; Grace and Irene drift about awkwardly, alienated by a masculine bond that long precedes them. Grace seems to sense something is off with nice-guy Louie, in the way that women certainly sometimes can. There’s mention of an accident about a year ago that changed Louie and Irene’s relationship – for the better, the men assume, though Grace is not so sure. Then comes a drunken dinner and a game of Paranoia and a slew of revelations about Louie and Irene that leave everyone unnerved, even Louie’s closest friends. But still we’re only about halfway in. What follows is where things get really messy.

Birdeater is stylish all the way down: perfectly paced, masterfully edited, visually ambitious from the very first scene. It’s taut filmmaking, a little cunning really, and particularly impressive considering this is Clark and Weir’s feature debut. In every shot of the film’s first act we sense menace, a threat of violence we can’t necessarily place. Then the truth about Louie and Irene comes out and that violence explodes in every direction: the bush falls dark, the cuts go manic, and the film veers into a kind of hour-long dreamlike horror sequence in which everyone’s complicities – in what? In whose suffering? – are exposed. Clark and Weir nail their depiction of the awful intimacy that exists between this particular genre of straight men: Dylan and Charlie torment Louie, humiliate him; they do the same to each other too, and especially when the women are around. It’s the kind of game anyone who’s seen the bonds between men who grew up together will recognise – love disguised as violence, violence disguised as love. One thing Clark and Weir seem to be asking in the film is which of these we are actually dealing with. As the hellish night stretches on, however, it gets increasingly hard to tell.

Several recent male-directed horror films have taken up the toxic masculinity theme we’re clearly in the territory of here – Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Zach Cregger’s Barbarian, Alex Garland’s Men. Birdeater is a little different, however, in that it makes the fairly bold decision to avoid didacticism just as we are expecting it to arrive. In one reading of Birdeater, everyone is a victim. I thought so, at least. The failing of a lot of films riding the post-#MeToo wave – and I’m thinking not only about horror here, but also something like Emerald Fennell’s sorry excuse for social criticism in Promising Young Woman – is that they go little further than naming the problem, the problem being that men are bad. True, I say, men are bad. Maybe even most men are bad. But even putting aside the question of whether audiences who have gone to see a movie about that fact are really the ones who need to be reminded of it (I’m presupposing here that all art like this, that tells its audience what it expect to hears and invites them to nod along in solemn agreement as if anything radical has been accomplished, is useless), we might also say that stopping the inquiry here is just bad politics. Louie is a worm, it’s true, a weasel and opportunist of the highest order. But Birdeater tells us so early on, and proceeds to keep us watching. Clark and Weir are careful, I think: whatever damage we might conclude has been done to Louie is of course not meant to vindicate him. But it does put what he’s done to Irene, or what exactly it is he wants from her, into the kind of wider gender-critical context that many recent films about male violence have lacked. 

As for Irene, only in the final sequence did I realise just how cleverly her character had been written. For most of the film Irene is passive – rarely do we get a sense of her perspective, and a lot of the time we see her in point-of-view shots through Louie’s eyes (see the close-up being used to advertise the film, for instance, where sexual threat Sam stares hatefully over at Louie past an in-profile Irene who looks totally unaware). Maybe she isn’t awake to any of it, we think. Maybe she’s been so broken down by Louie that she can’t actually see his abuse. But Clark and Weir make the brilliant choice, in the final scene, to have Irene look right at us. Louie has been doing something dodgy, believing Irene was asleep; it’s a kind of jumpscare point-of-view shot that stitches us into his shock at the knowing behind her gaze. Does Irene see her soon-to-be marriage for what it is? Let’s say she does. Certainly in this scene she’s no passive victim. One of the messier things about gender politics is that women, like men, often don’t want what’s good for them. The scene ends on an opportunity Irene has to escape, which we are increasingly realising might be a rare thing in this ballad of dependency-cum-abuse. Birdeater seems less interested in the question of whether she takes it than in what might serve to keep her there, and what other social reality she – or any of the characters in the film – could possibly hope to escape into. 

BIRDEATER, winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, officially opens in cinemas on Thursday 18t July 2024.


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