Birth (review)

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Baby Come Back

The spooky kid here? He doesn’t see dead people, he is dead people. And that’s how Birth differs from The Sixth Sense. Oh, and Birth is quite horrendously bad, too.

There’s a kind of bad that comes about because a movie’s dialogue is absurd or the direction is amateurish or the acting is laughable. That is not the case with Birth. The cast is pedigreed. The director, Jonathan Glazer, is coming off a justly acclaimed debut, Sexy Beast. Everyone involved is a top-notch professional. This is the kind of bad that happens only to people like the nice people here, when, maybe, everyone around them is too blinded by their aura to notice that, holy crap, this may be the most astoundingly wrongheaded film to come down the pike in a mighty long while, or no one has quite the nerve to ask if they’re sure they want to do this.
It’s icky to think that anyone may have been inspired creatively by Mary Kay LeTourneau, that creepy teacher who molested one of her students, had children with him, and now claims to want to spend her life with him, but here we have Birth, which hovers dangerously close to romanticizing pedophilia. The spooky kid is Sean (Cameron Bright: Godsend, The Butterfly Effect), who’s ten years old but claims to be the husband of Anna (Nicole Kidman: The Stepford Wives, Cold Mountain), who was also named Sean and died a decade earlier — died mere moments before, the film suggests, young Sean was born. And Anna is such a sad, pale sack of emotional emptiness that she actually becomes obsessed with this child, who frankly doesn’t even have the boyish, childish charm of the average kid to recommend him. Anna is convinced that the munchkin is her long-lost love; her Sean must have been a veritable vegetable if the near-catatonic kid is so vividly invoking him. The only thing that will prevent Birth from actually inciting angry mobs of torch-wielding parents to rise up against its monstrousness is that it, as a film, is such a sad, pale sack of emotional emptiness that it cannot hope to arouse any passion of any kind.

So, is Sean 2 a reincarnation of Sean 1 or just a weird little kid? Is the supernatural at work here or is there a rational explanation? Yes and yes. Yes and yes. All the very smart people behind this catastrophe of a film may have believed they were countering any potential criticism of the plot — crazy lady indulges her fixation on a child while all the other presumably sane adults around them enable her — by treating it very solemnly and very ambiguously: Look, it’s an atmospheric 1970s horror movie, very Rosemary’s Baby; it’s meant to be disturbing! Look, it’s a pretentious, self-important art film, all loooooong takes and gray washed-out New York City winter; it’s meant to be detached! But by never taking a viewpoint of any kind on its hardly uncontroversial subject — is this horrible, or is it romantic? — it leaves us in the middle, where everything contradicts everything else and nothing rings true on any level. We can accept none of this either at face value or as a metaphor for anything.

And we’re left with the fact that this is a story, elegantly presented in a way that demands we treat it with respect, about a grown woman in love with a little boy. That Birth fails to earn that respect doesn’t make the asking for it any less reprehensible.

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