Birdeater

Birdeater (2023)

Birdeater had its International Première at the SXSW 2024

Normally, a bucks’ party is an exclusively male rite of passage, where the groom enjoys his last hurrah as a bachelor, and his male friends see him off to a world of marriage and sexual commitment. In this transition between adolescent acting out and adult settling down, the transgressive activities involved – typically eleventh-hour (c)arousal, crapulence and chaos – are shrouded in a code of silence (and shared shame), before the groom puts his wild years behind him, moves on and commits himself to a single partner and to a more sedate(d) life. 

Much of writer/director Jack Clark and Jim Weir’s Birdeater takes place over a stag night – but unusually for this particular festivity, groom Louie (Mackenzie Fearnley, Australia’s answer to Barry Keoghan) invites his British bride-to-be Irene (Shabana Azeez) and her friend Grace (Clementine Anderson) to attend as well. “It’ll be super-modern,” Louie assures Irene; and later, when Louie’s intense, unreconstructed, shit-stirring friend Dylan (Ben Hunter) asks Grace if she’s nervous “because girls don’t go to bucks’ parties”, Grace’s boyfriend Charlie (Jack Bannister) – also an old friend of Louie – will (tellingly) answer for her, saying, “I think it’s very modern.” Yet it will not take much to send these three men back to the stone age, on a long, dark night of the soul where secrets are outed and primal urges are brought to the surface.

Birdeater

Before the party, though, there is an introduction to Louie and Irene’s pre-marital existence, sometimes together, sometimes apart – and although its routines are shown in breezy montage, questions are raised around the more shadowy edges. Their sex life seems active, but then there are the other, odder details, all of which will only subsequently be explained. Louie is clearly two-timing Irene, repeatedly lying about visits to his father or late-night meetings at the office (despite him working from home) just to get out of the house – even if he is not actually meeting any lover, but rather sneaking off for alone-time at a golf driving range. Then there is the peculiar ritual involved in his nocturnal departures, always handing Irene a glass of water – and something else – on his way out. Irene loves Louie, but is anxious about his absences, and about the coming wedding – and unbeknownst to her, Louie is arranging with another friend, Murph (Alfie Gledhill), ‘something special’ for Irene at the bucks’ party. 

The buck’s night takes place, as any rite of passage should, in a liminal space – a remote rural location, far from where Louie and Irene live together in Sydney, and accessible only via a ferry crossing. Here the couple and their guests are outside of their safety zone. “Charlie was the smart one, I was the funny one and, um, Louie was the – the nice one”, says Dylan, with characteristic inaccuracy, of the three ‘boys’ who go back the furthest. Murph is there too, as well as lrene’s metrosexual, polyamorous friend Sam (Harley Wilson) – the latter invited by Louie even though this tall, self-assured guest, who is all over Irene, rouses feelings only of antipathy in the groom.

Dylan, whose love for Louie goes beyond friendship, and who is openly jealous of Irene taking his mate away from him, has his own plans for the evening, and while he just wants this last bang to have all the usual excesses and male bonding of a bachelor party, he has to be reminded, repeatedly and with increasingly rude insistence by Louie, that “it’s not that kind of night tonight.” Yet as the alcohol and drugs kick in, and as deeply uncomfortable truths are half-told around the dinner table, the men divide from the women for their own out-of-bounds fieldwork. Indeed, this drunken drive into the outback directly evokes that classic of Australian masculinity in crisis, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake In Fright (1971). Here though, it is relationships that are in crisis, as dinky-die good blokes are exposed as controlling, gaslighting hypocrites, liars or worse – more neanderthal in their attitudes to women than they are ever willing to admit.

Birdeater

A birdeater is a type of large spider, so-named for its ability to prey on small birds. One might see the title as referring to the chicken which Irene serves at the dinner (“Everyone dig in”, she says, as the evening’s special guest who is still expected to feed everyone), or perhaps to the swallow which was earlier seen fluttering about inside the couple’s home. Louie caught that bird not to eat it, but in fact to set it free, even though an unsettling cutaway showed a nest of its squawking chicks in the ceiling corner, now separated by Louie from the mother bird and left under his power. Of course, stay-at-home Irene is herself like a trapped bird, and the question of how willing a participant, indeed how complicit, she is in this entrapment is key to a film where everyone finds themselves locked into desires and duties beyond their control. In fact Goliath birdeaters rarely do eat actual birds, but they do overpower their prey, or ward off attackers, with powerful neurotoxins – and Clark and Weir’s film is similarly full of drugs being downed, chemicals being taken and drinks being spiked, as all its characters seem to be under one toxic influence or another, and easy victims to predatory behaviour. 

Pitched somewhere between Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1988) and Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018), only set mostly in the bushland of New South Wales, Birdeater takes its reeling, intoxicated excursion on the wild side to reveal the gulf between the sexes, and the lies we tell our partners – and ourselves – to maintain a healthy, or unhealthy, relationship. It is sometimes funny, always grounded in character, but also full of upsetting themes and nerve-shredding tensions – and its final, indecisive image leaves us all to settle in with, and for, its binding trap of guilt and shame.

strap: Jack Clark and Jim Weir’s feature debut shows a bride-to-be semi-willingly trapped in the bachelor boys’ backwardness

© Anton Bitel