“After riding in the back of a truck, plunging face-first into a freezing river and roaming through a wintery forest, she stumbles onto an occupied settlement…”
Esther hatches a plan: to burn all of her clothes, give herself a haircut using Dad’s razor, and hide in plain sight as a young, Caucasian man – as if sex and ethnicity were somehow intertwined. (“It’s easier this way,” she states, by way of explanation, “if the world thinks I’m a boy.”) She adopts the name Ula (Oola? Oula?), now unwillingly playing the role of her lifetime as an errand boy for the somewhat-bipolar Johann (Jakob Cedergren) and his family.
She forms a deep bond with Johann’s son Aksel (Arthur Hakalanti), an introverted young man with a tendency to punch himself in the head. As she plots her and Aksel’s escape, and the family gradually accepts her, resentments flare, infidelities unravel, and unlikely friendships blossom. The ending, involving a burning sauna and a Mexican stand-off, is too outlandish to spoil.
“You got nice dark eyes, like Humphrey Bogart,” Esther tells a doomed pig. Even if you were to get past The Bird Catcher’s inherently implausible concept, you’ll stumble on its awkward dialogue. Clarke’s choice to have his actors speak English (perhaps with hopes of a wider distribution) with intermittent bits inexplicably delivered in German or Norwegian, resulted in painfully strained performances. “That cigarette was smoked by an honest Norwegian!” a character states passionately. “It hurts like fire – but I don’t care!” another one exclaims. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be: “They were ‘being’ with each other… that little w***e!”
“…grating is the artsy dream interludes, wherein Esther half-hallucinates, half-sleeps, and the fragmentary, pseudo-poetic narration…”
Every aspect of the film is forcefully heightened – from the acting to Jim Copperthwaite’s thunderous score – coating the proceedings with a thick, foamy layer of soap. Snow angels are carved out. Someone drowns, Titanic-style. Especially grating is the artsy dream interludes, wherein Esther half-hallucinates, half-sleeps, and the fragmentary, pseudo-poetic narration. The film slows down for those kinds of self-indulgent sequences, feelin’ itself.
Winona Ryder look-a-like Boussnina does her best to mask her inherent femininity, and while the actress displays some chops in the quieter moments, the weight of this task ultimately crushes her fragile shoulders. Diehl, after Inglourious Basterds and Allied, is typecast once again as the vile Nazi, his role amounting to little more than an extended cameo. The rest of the cast fares seems lost, with the young Hakalanti being the minor standout.
Call it a missed opportunity. The Bird Catcher does have a few things going for it, apart from its unusual location. The production values are slick, while John Christian Rosenlund’s crisp cinematography captures frosty, painterly shots. There’s a tense moment or two. It’s those aspects that made me wish Clarke reigned in his artistic impulses and delved deeper into exploring themes of identity and forbidden love.
An unintentionally hilarious tearjerker, The Bird Catcher can be enjoyed on that level, I suppose. Even if the events upon which this film is based were true, Clarke didn’t make me believe it. The director may have had high aspirations, but his Bird Catcher ends up empty-handed.
The Bird Catcher (2018) Directed by Ross Clarke. Written by Trond Morten Kristensen. Starring August Diehl, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Jakob Cedergren, Laura Birn, Johannes Kuhnke.
4 out of 10