I saw Wild Canaries on a lark; there was nothing much else playing that fit my time slot. Expecting this to be a Brooklyn film of the mumblecore variety, with perhaps a pinch more quirk thrown in to distinguish the thriller aspects, I was surprised to find a film that could be titled The Bird with the Bakelite Plumage. From the opening credits, it is apparent that this film is at least a little familiar with the conventions of giallo films, and hence will be (and is) far slicker than any mumblecore production. No, Wild Canaries is old-school indie, a nebbish murder mystery that provides plenty in the way of intelligent comedy, if not thrills or suspense. This being Brooklyn, the plot revolves around a thirty-something grump (director/writer Levine), his child-like, impetuous yet “charming” fiance (Sophia Takal), and their roommate (Alia Shawkat), who seems to be living with them to help offset the high cost of rent, and who happens to have a crush on the fiance. The fiance, Barri, having no employment and a standing chess lesson with the elderly lady downstairs, becomes the engine of the film – she finds said elderly lady dead, seemingly of a heart attack, but becomes convinced that the lady’s son (Kevin Corrigan) offed her for some reason. She begins airing her theories to anyone who will listen, which drives her fiance, Noah, crazy, and exacerbates tensions already present in their relationship. Roommate Jean takes slight advantage of the newly forming cracks, sides with Barri, helps her snoop, advances her theories, and soon tries to cozy up to her romantically. At the same time, Noah is re-warming to his ex, and now boss, Elanor, herself an avowed lesbian. Barri keeps upping the ante by eventually breaking into her neighbors’ apartments to find more dirt, and we come to discover that there is indeed dirt to be found, but not in the expected places.
What makes the film fun is that it very intelligently weaves giallo conventions into the storyline, but without much visual punning and certainly without any winking toward the audience. (Behold the powers of successful sublimation, people!) For instance, the rampant sexualization of women in giallo, and in particular the presence of what could be termed the “predatory lesbian” within the genre, is displaced onto the sex-positive openness of contemporary Brooklyn. The lesbians in the case of Wild Canaries are not the aberrant, perverse, and exotic sirens of the swinging ’70s, narrative red hearings that pull in the innocent heroine all the better to spit her out less innocent but better prepared for her encounter with the real killer; rather, the lesbianism here is ascendant, matter of fact, and all-encompassing, being not the outlier, but the boss, the roommate, perhaps the fiance, along with (spoilers ahead) the killer’s girlfriend, her babysitter, a jilted ex, and many party-goers. In the spirit of the times, and of reality, this lesbianism is gentle and not perverse, “predatory” only in a parodic sense, as an unrelenting front against which our nebbish protagonist seems powerless. Another giallo convention made amusing herein is the switcheroo identity of the killer. We are set up, along with Barri, to suppose that it is doughy, unpleasant Anthony, the dead woman’s son, but instead we find it is the owner of the building, a dissolute hipster artist (named Damien, natch) played by Jason Ritter. This follows in a long tradition of deranged artists who use crime as their canvas; admittedly, this tradition exists outside of giallo as well, but the Italians somehow elevated the criminal artist to (usually his) greatest heights of grotesquerie. The updates in this case are funny and intelligent too, poking fun at Brooklynite cliches, as Damien fumbles his one hitter in the street after an argument with his wife, or as he stumbles around his studio talking to his “props.” Ritter is great in the role, but then again, all the acting is good, and draws us into the world of these annoying people. There is a narrative breakdown at the end for those of us too slow to paste the shards together along the way, and this is perhaps the closest the film comes to formally acknowledging its roots. Unlike a giallo, and perhaps as a sign that, all their derring-do aside, these characters are trying to fit into the bourgeois universe, Wild Canaries uses the action of the plot to restore the world, to draw the characters back into the couplings that they started in, and that, we are to understand, fit them best. The plot of the film is not only an aphrodisiac, then, but something more powerful – a testing ground that allows these birds to take wing, see something of the wild, and then return to their cages, rather peacefully, happy to have their exploratory flights of fancy satisfied, and now ready to nest.