Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"It’s framed as an erotic thriller, and there are comedic elements, but at it’s core it’s doing something important, reminding viewers to take proper care of themselves and each other."

The state motto of New Hampshire is ‘live free or die’. Some people take it too seriously.

Birder begins with a romantic scene between two men who are camping by a lake, but as director Nate Dushku distracts us with the beauty of the trees, the dappled light on the water, the serene blue sky overhead, it slowly becomes apparent that one of the men has disappeared. The other sits by their camp fire burning papers and clothing. He tidies everything away as a responsible hiker (or murderer) should, then leaves the scene.

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This is the birder, a man who will subsequently introduce himself as Kristian, from Green River in Vermont, though we can never be fully certain of his identity. In certain circles, people don’t push. There are plenty of sympathetic reasons why a man might wish to be discreet. Later he will claim to be living off money inherited from his parents, so perhaps he’s simply drifting around, enjoying his freedom. His flirtation with an adolescent boy at a gas station provides another little hint of something more sinister. Perhaps it’s just intended to be flattering, a little encouragement for a kid who may be gay but lack the confidence to express himself. Perhaps it’s something else.

The bulk of the action takes place at Lotus Cove, a woodland nudist camp on the shores of a lake. It’s a place where freedom is expressed in the ease with which people come and go, the relaxed attitude to sex, and the general atmosphere of acceptance. There are people here of various genders, not just gay men, and everybody is willing to get physical except for ranger Delilah (Deilah DuBois, but that may simply be because she’s on duty – she’s friendly enough. There are freewheeling conversations, late night campfires, alcohol and other inebriating substances. It’s a place where anything goes – and that’s a problem.

When everything seems to be there for the taking, people get bored. They’re more inclined to seek out extremes. And why not? The people here feel that they’re amongst their own kind, part of a trusting community. The trouble is that they really don’t know each other very well. They certainly don’t know the birder. And when individuals start disappearing, nobody tries very hard to find them.

Statistically, queer people are at higher risk of violence within relationships than straight people. When you belong to a stigmatised minority, there’s more pressure to try to hold on to what you’ve got, even when it’s clearly problematic. You’re also more likely to have low self esteem, and to feel an obligation to make outsiders think that everything is fine in order to keep from feeding prejudice. On top of this, there’s the social vulnerability that comes from a high incidence of familial rejection. Disappearances do go unremarked.

Until this century, there wasn’t even much research on this – society at large just didn’t notice. LGBTQ+ people themselves didn’t really want the community’s dirty laundry aired in public. As the scale of the problem became apparent, however, attitudes began to change. Birder is one of the first films to address the subject to starkly. It’s framed as an erotic thriller, and there are comedic elements, but at it’s core it’s doing something important, reminding viewers to take proper care of themselves and each other.

Almost every cinema serial killer has a schtick of some kind. The birder, in his own way, sticks to the rules of his community. He doesn’t do anything without consent. Full and informed consent, not so much, but people will say all sorts of things in the pursuit of pleasure. The sex depicted in the film (framed with care so that there’s nothing that’s really pornographic, just a lot of nudity and implication) is grounded and realistic (beyond the fact that most of the actors look like models), yet there are clear allusions to the porn-fuelled fantasies which both inform the film’s humour and lead its characters into dangerous situations.

The trouble with centring a character like the birder is that he doesn’t seem to feel anything very deeply, so the viewer has little to connect with. We don’t get to know the supporting characters very well and only DuBois has the charisma to make up for that (David J Cork is also good but doesn’t have enough to work with). This leaves the whole thing feeling rather flat. It doesn’t really have enough ideas to justify the 87 minute running time. If you’re turned on by the sex scenes, you might get more out of it, but that comes down to personal taste. It’s impressively produced for a feature-length fiction début, with some nice technical work (the sound design, in particular, deserves praise) but it doesn’t hit home the way it should. One hopes that Dushku’s next project will avoid this difficulty and be more memorable as a result.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2023
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Birder packshot
A serial killer inveigles his way into the friendly, supportive space of a queer nudist camp.

Director: Nate Dushku

Writer: Amnon Lourie

Starring: Michael Emery, David J Cork, Cody Sloan, Jes Davis, Uki Pavlovich

Year: 2023

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US


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