By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Henry Thomas, Michael Shannon, Isaiah Washington
Directed by Alex Turner
Written by Simon Barrett
Produced by Silver Nitrate Pictures, Dead Birds Films
Nothing happens in a vacuum. Not even this column, which I normally keep academic, discussing major issues in a lighthearted way. It is irresponsible to do that at this juncture. Many of you will have been following the events taking place in my home country after the murder of George Floyd with the same mixture of fear, abject horror, and near-paralyzing rage that has gripped me as over the last few days, protesters have been rightfully addressing the on-going issues of police brutality and the systematic oppression of Black people. We are witnessing flagrant, outrageous violence in return from the ground all the way up to the executive level. It was pure chance that I picked a film that addresses some of these enduring issues well, that summarizes the need for on-going allies in the country-wide fight for human rights taking place right now. DEAD BIRDS is the film we didn’t know we needed, a Southern-Gothic portrayal of how my country’s blood soaked past impacts it’s present and a fable about the dangers of believing oneself immune to being impacted by them.
DEAD BIRDS follows William (Henry Thomas) and his gang of ne’er do wells as they rob a bank and, leaving a fair bit of casualties in their wake, seek to hide out in an abandoned mansion overnight before fleeing to Mexico. On their way, they spot a scarecrow that looks like a crucified man and shoot a deformed dog-like creature in the cornfield, its skin looking like it was flayed off and face twisted in a grotesque, puckered scream. Ignoring the clear warning that is this creature’s existence, the band continues on to the mansion, where two of the outlaws, Clyde (Michael Shannon) and Joseph (Mark Boone Jr.) plot to steal the gold for themselves while everyone else tries to get comfortable. Only Joseph keeps hearing voices. And William’s girlfriend, Annabelle (Nicki Aycox) has been seeing little kids running around the house that magically disappear. What follows involves human voodoo dolls, necromantic rites, lots and lots of deformed faces, intestines being removed en masse, and the occasional flayed creature.
“DEAD BIRDS vividly depicts how America’s blood soaked history repeats itself; through willful ignorance.”
First and foremost, DEAD BIRDS is the story of a white man of considerable wealth and power who sacrificed slaves for his own personal gain, putting them through horrendous ordeals in an attempt to benefit his own family. (Be warned: DEAD BIRDS depicts extreme acts of violence and pain inflicted on Black bodies veering into Hellraiser territory). When his actions have consequences and those consequences begin to haunt him, he attempts to suppress them however he can until the townspeople realize the depth of his immorality and condemn him for his actions. This initial condemnation is not enough to cleanse the land of it’s scars, or to erase the effects of what he’d done; and so his mansion becomes a place where history repeats itself and never dies, where the collective trauma inflicted on the slaves becomes a virus that infects anyone who comes into contact with it and perpetuates a cycle of violence. Each character is affected by this “virus” differently; Todd, an escaped slave and part of William’s crew, hears the disembodied voices of the deceased slaves and suffers visions of the torture inflicted on them. Unlike his white companions, Todd is unable to live blind to the horrors of slavery; he doesn’t have the privilege of pretending the house is just an abandoned mansion, instead seeing evidence of the traumatic incidents that took place there everywhere he goes. Someone else (who will go unnamed to avoid spoilers) remains ignorant of the danger until the disease infects him, going on to inhabit the role of the torturer and… well… perpetuate that cycle of violence. The mansion becomes a (very simplified and condensed) microcosm of American race relations, a stage where this one series of traumatic incidents are reenacted again and again and again.
So why not just leave the house? Well, as it turns out, there’s a benefit to staying, namely the sack of gold that William and the gang stole. It goes missing, chaining William to the place as even those he loves are subjected to the house’s horrors. And all the while, he refuses to see that something is dreadfully wrong; unable to hear the voices of those who passed, unwilling (and in the end, perhaps unable) to see any of the deceased, he blocks out (either willingly or unknowingly) everything that would keep him from pursuing that gold and pays the ultimate price. If we’re being real here, he pays more than one price for his blindness. This is white privilege in a nutshell, the ability to be blind, the willingness to remain so because it benefits you. In the very beginning of the film, William accidentally shoots and kills a child while robbing a bank in pursuit of his beloved gold; this demonstrates that despite the couple of good qualities he demonstrates in the film, his willingness to pursue the gold above all else has had and will have dire consequences. His character arc is a warning to not be passive, to consider that doing nothing (abstaining from this fight because it’s not necessarily what’s best for us) is an action in of itself with its own consequences.
Look, if you really need a reason to watch it, Michael Shannon is in it. That’s a damn good reason to watch anything, if you ask me. But that aside, this movie is an entertaining, effective ghost story that draws on America’s troubled past to warn us of what could become of our future. I’m giving it an 8 out of 10; DEAD BIRDS isn’t perfect, but it’s an excellent underrated find that proved all too prescient — and it was released in 2004. Racism is a disease that has deep roots in our country and needs to be attacked and extricated at any cost, and while this film isn’t exactly a perfect examination of the ways in which America’s past has affected it’s present, it does do a good job of creating a parable arguing for the necessity of paying attention to these issues and doing everything we can to address them. The consequences if we all don’t do our part are dire, and its long past time (from this columnist’s perspective) that we stopped allowing cycles of racial violence to be perpetuated. We all need to take a stand and take it now. The future depends on us. We’ve got so much farther to go; but together, we’ll fight until we get there.