Saturday, November 16, 2019

Crime Leads To Despair in the Fascinating Thriller Birds of Passage

CW: Mention of sexual assault

Barenaked Ladies' song for the Chicken Little soundtrack One Little Slip begins with the phrases "It was a recipe for disaster, a four-course meal of no-siree" and the same could be said for the central story of Birds of Passage concerning a Wayuu family entering the drug trade. It all started out innocently enough, Rapayet (Jose Acosta), looking to earn up money to ensure that he could marry Zalda (Natalie Reyes), begins selling some local weed to American missionaries. Seems simple enough, right? Just a little money, no biggie. But big things have small beginnings and from these transactions comes a criminal empire that ends up encompassing swathes of drugs and even moves Rapayet, Zalda and their kids into a big fancy house.

Though not quite as good as The Godfather (what is?), Birds of Passage effectively channels one of the elements that made that Francis Ford Coppola movie so great. Specifically, it takes gangsters and makes them humans while also putting these fleshed-out characters through a premise hinging on the idea that criminal activity can only inevitably lead to personal destruction. The empire Rapayet and associates create is an impressively expansive one, but it's not one that can last forever and as more and more things go awry for these characters, you can feel the creeping sense of inevitable doom beginning to make its presence known.

Such doom tends to come about due to male characters trying to make their prowess known through toxically masculine means. A cousin of Rapayet sexually assaulting a rival gangsters daughter is what sets up the majority of the chaos in the third act while Rapayet's life-long best friend engaging in murder so as to appear tough is what brings about only further trouble in an earlier portion of the story. Such behavior is carried out with the intent on the part of these male characters of appearing strong, but in the end, only seals their doom and the doom of this criminal empire. One could even say this motivation is what spurs Rapayet to enter the criminal business in the first place as he hopes to find a way to generate income that can ensure he lives up to the traditional idea of a husband and father being a breadwinner for his family.

Such thoughts coarse deeply through the veins of Birds of Passage as do intensely-executed scenes of gangster carnage that will leave you clutching your breath, especially in the final half-hour where an all-out war between criminal empires transpires. Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Gurrera are exceptionally good at creating tension even when guns aren't going off, particularly in an unforgettable scene where Rapayet's messenger is sent to talk to a rival gangster about the aforementioned cousin's act of sexual assault. Editor Miguel Schverdfinger keeps the suspense ramped up to eleven here just by the timing of his cuts that keep you so on edge that you never know if all hell will break loose in the next shot or not.

The distinctly-realized scenes depicting suspenseful interactions between criminals aren't just the only area of Birds of Passage that stands out as idiosyncratic. The way it heavily utilizes traditions and customs specific to the Wayuu people adds a unique layer to the proceedings that also helps to emphasize when characters like Rapayet have begun to betray their moral conscience. For example, the first time Rapayet shoots a man lands with a powerful impact given how much Birds of Passage has emphasized that such an act of violence goes against the character's culture. A later scene depicting Rapayet's criminal empire reaching out to their Wayuu neighbors for aid is a fascinating sequence that could really only work in a movie like Birds of Passage that's so thoughtful in how it approaches this culture.

Just as prominent as the perspective of people belonging to the Wayuu ethnic group is the visual motif of birds. As you might expect from the title, there are all kinds of fowl running around either in the background or prominently in scenes throughout Birds of Passage. Sort of an inverse of how trapped insects are used to directly reflect the circumstances of the similarly trapped characters in The Woman in the Dunes, Birds of Passage uses these birds as a haunting contrast to the lead human characters of its own story. These birds have the freedom to fly away whenever they want, whereas Rapayet and company are held Earthbound by the lingering consequences of their actions. Such actions make for compelling crime movie cinema and also began with just one...little...slip.

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