Monday, December 29, 2008

Dead Birds (USA, 2004)

(Trailer) During the American Civil War, a group of six robbers and a dog rob a bank in Alabama and set out for Mexico. Along the way, they take refuge for the night at the isolated and deserted plantation of a dead fellow soldier they once knew. A storm rolls in and as the night continues it becomes obvious that they are neither alone nor safe, but that which threatens them is most definitely not human. One by one their numbers dwindle—but is it too late to escape?
Dead Birds
, the first feature-length film of Alex Turner, is an odd and uneven little film that manages to surprise and please even as it uses so many staples of the genres that too much of the film is predictable and, far more unforgivable, serves up a sextet of characters that are, in the end, little more than cold-blooded killers,
no matter how sympathetic the one or the other might seem within the course of the film. Indeed, the bloodbath that they instigate during the opening moments of the film is so excessive and cold-hearted that one is hard put to understand why one should even root for the characters later in the film when they enter the house of hell. In this regard, even the later admission of remorse (for having shot and killed a child during the robbery) by the group’s leader William (Henry Thomas, best remembered as Elliott in Spielberg's E.T. (1982)) does little to assuage the fact that the gang—by choice—has caused the violent death of many a fellow human being. (In the end, the four better “good guys” of the six are differentiated from the two not-so-good guys simply by having the two worse guys being obvious racists—they use the N-word.)
The film's initial 15 (and the last 5) minutes are perhaps the best of the film and, along with the movie's unique period setting, are the saving graces of the entire production (the acting, with the exception of Isaiah Washington as Todd, the only black man riding with 5 Confederate deserters, is strangely less than convincing). The location shots are exceptionally successful—the town scenes were shot on the sets left over from Tim Burton's pleasant fantasy Big Fish (2003/trailer)—and everything leading up to the set-bound events within the plantation house firmly entrench the film with a depressing atmosphere that is truly palpable.
Regrettably, after the six “heroes” cross the field of dead corn—and explain away a skinless creature they shoot dead as a “hairless hog”—the film loses its momentum in the overly long scenes of the various characters wandering the ghostly hallways and rooms of the plantation house. Both the director and the film's scriptwriter Simon Barrett (who co-wrote that same year a much better paced script for the dumb but fun Frankenfish (2004/trailer)) desperately need to learn a bit more when it comes to pacing, for Dead Birds truly loses its force at this point and never effectively regains it despite a few decent scares and a particularly horrendous scene of a creature cutting its way out of a woman’s stomach. Had less time been spent building the suspense, the suspense (and the individual pay-off scenes) would have been far more effective; as it, the viewer often has the feeling of “get on with it,” a feeling that detracts from the money shots (to use the vernacular of another genre of film making). Much of what happens is too easy to predict to be forgiven, but the true faux pas of the film is Todd’s sudden death in an explosion of CGI light, an unsatisfying groan-inducing scene that is so lame and left-field that it defies comprehension that it wasn't rewritten. That said, the last 5 minutes careen wildly from expectable to truly unexpected, and combined with the last line uttered in the film, become truly memorable.
Dead Birds could have been and should have been a much better film than it is, but thanks to its genre setting, overall atmosphere of dread, occasionally effective scares and fatalistic ending, the film at least remains both interesting and watchable. But viewers with a forgiving attitude will probably enjoy it more than those with high expectations.

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