Set in a tremorous Tokyo, the dark psychological thriller “Earthquake Bird” wants to rattle you with dangerous passion and mystery, yet it’s more of a flightless if colorful creature than anything else. Not that there aren’t some absorbing facets to the East-lures-West noir set-up in which Alicia Vikander’s bilingual expat navigates a murder investigation that points to her. But in his handling of the woolly genre elements, writer-director Wash Westmoreland, in adapting British author Susanna Jones’s same-titled 2001 novel, is the more regrettably unreliable narrator here than his increasingly unmoored heroine.
Vikander plays single, Swedish-born Lucy, a buttoned-up translator and amateur cellist who likes the occasional karaoke night with colleagues and being the only foreigner in an all-female, furisode-attired string quartet but mostly sticks to herself out of a deep-seated belief that a childhood trauma has made her cursed. She nevertheless falls for tall, brooding photographer Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), believing their caginess as private individuals is a point of connection, although we can tell her naturally cautious demeanor is giving way while his opacity retains its secretive coolness.
The wrinkle comes when Lucy befriends flirtatious, culturally naive American expat Lily (Riley Keough), and before long Lucy sees herself as the possible victim in a scenario of romantic betrayal, one with sinister implications. But as the story wends its way through paranoia, snooping, hallucinations and even flashes of ghostliness, “Earthquake Bird” never takes hold as either a true mystery (despite the flashback structure triggered by Lucy’s initial questioning by detectives) or a character study in the fragile nature of self-alienation.
As an unsettled protagonist commanding the elegant, textured visuals framed by frequent Park Chan Wook cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, Vikander is certainly an alluring enigma with her hypnotic eyes and throaty purr. It doesn’t make Lucy a captivating flesh-and-blood character, however. Try as he might, Westmoreland can’t muster the same portraiture skills with a woman of mystery and brokenness that he’s shown with bold, expressive types (“Still Alice,” “Colette”). That also applies to Keough, who has a few moments worthy of her character’s suspicious friendliness, but it’s not enough to convincingly sell a tension-filled threesome when the third cryptic element is Kobayashi’s flat turn.
The most discordant element in “Earthquake Bird” is the aggressively atmospheric, pulsating score (by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne), frequently juiced to pounding levels as a suspense crutch. That’s the surest sign what we’re watching is more of an insecure potboiler than something distinctively, stylishly unexpected.
Rated: R, for some sexuality, full nudity and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 1, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; available Nov 15 on Netflix