As one girl comes to terms with the strange disappearance of her mother, Gregg Araki’s White Bird In A Blizzard gets under the skin of a family mystery.
The Lady Vanishesby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After the phantasmagorical anarchy of Kaboom, Gregg Araki’s White Bird In A Blizzard seems positively tame by comparison – a family melodrama of careless daughters and disappeared mothers. But while there’s not much of the lusty desire so familiar to Araki’s work, nor the apocalyptic (or masonic) extravagance of his previous film, there’s something quietly devastating about White Bird In A Blizzard as it tears the suburban family at the heart of its story apart. Based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, Araki’s film is a seemingly gentle tale of mothers, daughters and fathers lost in a familial haze, each of them caught somewhere between love and selfishness. But beyond the premise of awkward and unwanted domesticity, Araki injects an otherworldly aura into the story, as a mother vanishes into thin air while a daughter searches for her in a dreamed blizzard. Searching for answers in a cold white desert, for secrets which remain elusively frozen.
Returning home from school one day, Kat (Shailene Woodley) finds her mother Eve (Eva Green) gone. Her boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) was supposed to pick her up from school but didn’t, but her father Brock (Christopher Meloni) is nevertheless at home to give her the news and pick up the pieces. And while it’s not too much of a shock for Kat, who saw her mother’s desperation at being held captive as a suburban housewife, she begins to question whether her mother really could have just disappeared. As Phil’s interest in having sex wanes after her mother’s disappearance, Kat begins to suspect he may have been having an affair with her mother. And it’s a suspicion that lasts for years, despite therapy and graduation. But after striking up a casual relationship with Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), responsible for investigating her mother’s disappearance, she begins to think Daddy may have some skeletons in the closet. Or freezer.
Piecing together a story out of achronological flashbacks, White Bird In A Blizzard is a mystery puzzle, putting the viewer in Kat’s shoes as she tries to find the white bird of reason in a blizzard of possibilities. Gradually, her mother’s jealousy is revealed, her desire for Phil and her ever-smaller dresses. And like the dream sequences that give the film its name, it’s with an ethereal fantasy sequence that Araki recreates Kat’s incredulity as her mother just disappears into thin air in front of the mirror in the hallway. And yet, the flashbacks and dreams aren’t always from Kat’s perspective, White Bird In A Blizzard revealing the final piece of the puzzle in convincing flashback – an answer that Kat however isn’t privy to. At least not until weeks later, when her dad is arrested after drunkenly confessing in a bar to murdering his wife.
But like Hollywood’s golden era movies of gay villains, Otto Preminger’s Laura and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Gregg Araki’s White Bird In A Blizzard culminates in a strange reveal – that the film’s two men are having an illicit relationship. A taboo, it seems, that’s so risible, that while Eve can’t stop laughing when she catches Brock and Phil together, her husband is so humiliated he strangles her. It’s a gay secret at the centre of the story that seems strangely from another time. But while the film is structured around this murderous gay reveal, from one of the avant-gardists of New Queer Cinema, White Bird In A Blizzard is more than just another one of those ‘gay crime’ films. Instead it’s a warning shot across the bows of internalised homophobia in American suburbia; the psychological stresses of being inside the closet, leading a double life and living inside an unhappy marriage.
There’s no positive spin to their transgressive love – only murder, prison and suicide. And a palpable sense of unnecessary loss as Kat lives out her adulthood with neither mother nor father – her family torn apart by the homosexual secret at its dark heart. But largely held together by Shailene Woodley’s highly watchable performance, White Bird In A Blizzard is a strangely amorphous affair – lurching between trashy, sexy and strange mystery. And yet, as a film about a daughter’s reaction to her mother’s disappearance, Araki’s film doesn’t really work – lacking any kind of emotional reaction to the trauma. As Kat shows neither guilt, anger, frustration nor worry – just idle curiosity. But what White Bird In A Blizzard lacks in narrative impact, it makes up for in its characters and details; a snowstorm of wicked one-liners, haunting images and delicious performances that showers Araki’s film in entertaining mystery.
White Bird In A Blizzard is released on 6th March 2015 in the UK