The Game Is Afoot, by Craig Schroeder
Though the year is young, Wild Canaries is the most ambitious film I’ve seen thus far (and yes, I have seen emo Channing Tatum sky-skating in Jupiter Ascending). But it’s not a resplendent technical odyssey, a big-budget popcorn flick or a high concept endeavor. Instead it is a genre mash-up that pairs Woody Allen-esque comedic sensibilities with Hitchockian intrigue, and the result is a sophisticated look at relationships, sexuality and obsession.
Wild Canaries is a whodunit murder-mystery in the purest sense. When an elderly woman in a hip Brooklyn neighborhood drops dead, thirty-something Barri (Sophia Takal), with the reluctant help of her boyfriend Noah (director and writer Lawrence Michael Levine), goes on the hunt for foul play. With the assistance of their roommate and perpetual third wheel Jean (the always lovely Alia Shawkat), Barri turns from hopeful entrepreneur to amateur sleuth. The momentum is driven by the film’s central mystery, but Levine displays an amazing ability to shift in and out of tried and true Hollywood picture genres, easily shifting its principle puzzle into broad screwball comedy, all the while able to depict a domestic relationship in turmoil as effectively as some John Cassavettes’ films.
Like Quentin Tarantino or Edgar Wright, Levine brings a post-modern sensibility to Wild Canaries, one that allows him to use cliched genre techniques in a way that enhances both the mystery and comedy. In the chase sequences (in which Takal is especially wonderful, tailing her suspects while dressed to the nines in Brooklyn hipster-garb), Levine harkens back to film noir and detective cinema, using hard zooms from foreground to background, accompanied by sharp music swells. But the best bit of post-modern filmmaking is the screenplay’s gender role reversal; where The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo or any number of classic movie mysteries see the man as the inquisitive mind who must overcome a femme fatale, or at the very least a misguided female companion, it’s Barri who leads the narrative in Wild Canaries, smarter than her counterpart Noah, an impotent goober always mucking things up.
But the stakes of the mystery are never as vital as the characters’ relationships to one another. Noah and Barri are two people in love, but whose relationship has plateaued. They’re bored and they both take each other for granted. Both Takal and Levine bring honesty to two characters who could easily become parodies–especially Levine’s Noah, who through a continued series of mishaps accrues a black eye and a neck brace. And by comparing their disparate approaches to their unlikely situation–Noah an unrelenting skeptic to Barri’s visions of murder and intrigue–Levine has crafted a screenplay that expertly navigates a relationship that has stalled out. Both are involved in flirtatious relationships with lesbians who rest somewhere around a four on the Kinsey scale; for Noah it’s his ex-girlfriend Eleanor (Annie Parisse) and for Barri it’s their bohemian roommate Jean (Shawkat). There’s a fluid mystery to the film’s sexual and gender politics, which results in a very mature consideration of sexuality and what the boundaries of a relationship look like.
There are few things in cinema more invigorating than a film that trusts its audience’s intelligence. And Wild Canaries is a smart, complex film that never doubts its audience’s ability to connect the dots. As an amateur gumshoe, Barri’s investigative work is sloppy and usually involves wild speculation; there are no genius bits of observation or Sherlock-ian levels of intuition. So much of the mystery unfolds for the viewer as it does for Barri, Noah and Jean. Rather than hold their hand, Levine allows the mystery to become a shared investigation between his characters and the audience. Though whip-smart for the majority of its run-time, the film’s conclusion is marred by a horribly clunky bit of exposition, wherein the specifics of the mystery–blank spaces that any competent audience could fill in on their own– are narrated with no artistic merit or thematic weight. It’s a choice that reeks of higher-ups demanding a more complete ending. How are these dumb-dumbs going to know what happened if someone doesn’t look into the camera and tell them? The moment is brief, but it’s a sour note that ends an otherwise intelligent and credible mystery. But, for the most part, Wild Canaries is greater than the sum of its missteps. It’s a terribly complex film, both narratively and emotionally, that feels easy and natural.