‘Birder’: An offbeat erotic thriller that lacks suspense

Two nude men kiss in the woods
Michael Emery as Kristian and David J. Cork as Mathew in ‘Birder.’

“Birder,” now available on demand and digital, is an offbeat erotic thriller in the “Stranger by the Lake” vein. The film, directed by Nate Dushku, and written by his husband, Amnon Lourie, opens with Kristian (Michael Emery) misquoting the New Hampshire state motto when he says, “Live Free and Die.” However, his phrasing is apt. It is suggested that Kristian may have disposed of a body before he heads off to Lotus Cove, a clothing optional campsite in the Granite State. 

The queer campers there do indeed live free; it is less than ten minutes into “Birder” before the characters start getting naked and they practically never stop. The handsome newbie, Kristian, immediately turns heads when he shows up unencumbered. And it is not long before he goes off with Corban (Uki Pavlovic) to have sex. Rumor spreads quickly that Kristian is “the roughest hottest fuck [Corban] ever met,” which interests more than one camper looking to spend time with him.

When the group, which includes couples James (Ryan Czerwonko) and Mathew (David J. Cork) as well as Sam (Jes Davis) and Patrick (Cody Sloan), along with three guys all named Kyle (Joe Franjieh, Justin Gerhard and Vinny Turnbull), take mushrooms generously provided by park ranger Delilah (Delilah DuBois), things get both relaxed and scary for everyone but Kristian. He goes back to his tent and finds Henley (Chris Colon) waiting for him hoping to have sex. Their tryst ends abruptly as Kristian strangles this stranger. The next morning, when Patrick mentions someone saw a bear last night, it was likely Kristian carrying a bear skin rug he purchased in town while he disposed of Henley’s body.

“Birder” doesn’t create much mystery about Kristian’s murderous nature, and he attracts everyone he meets. When Sam admires a mantis tattoo on Kristian’s forearm, and they talk about how the insects eat their partner’s head in captivity, Kristian purrs, “It’s my thing.” And when he meets two of the Kyles in a canoe, he is not flirting when he tells one that he wants to “choke him out.”

“Birder” isn’t subtle, which is fine, but it is not particularly suspenseful either. The murders are mostly bloodless — save one scene involving a pair of homophobes Kristian encounters — but they also feel slack. Kristian’s kills seem pretty effortless, and Delilah’s investigation when Henley “disappears,” does not feel very urgent. It is only when Delilah discovers two dead Kyles that the thriller aspect of “Birder” shifts out of low gear.

The sex seems to be more of the focus here, and the film critiques how gay men interact, especially when naked. (Give credit to the ensemble cast — save the shy Czerwonko and DuBois — who get naked early and often). The teasing talk and discussions of “suffocating masculinity,” accompanied by touching and the copious nudity, is pointed. Dushku creates a hothouse atmosphere, albeit outdoors, in this sex positive environment. The way the queer men express their desires so, well, nakedly, is admirable, even if the sex and nudity is more homoerotic than erotic.

“Birder” does miss an opportunity to create some real sexual tension when Garreth (Paul Victor), “Mr. Leather Woodchuck,” arrives at the camp and may be a rival “Daddy” for Kristian. The two men have an exchange that could be read as friendly or fiendly, but the film fails to explore the possibilities. Instead, Kristian focuses his attention on David (Miles Crawford), a married father staying at his nearby lake house who invites Kristian to go fishing early one morning.

As such, the success of “Birder” depends largely on whether viewers want to see Kristian get away with murder or get caught. Why he kills some folks and not others is the film’s biggest mystery because it seems almost random. In one scene, it appears he might off someone, but something happens that shifts his intentions. It might have been more involving if Kristian had a trigger for his crimes, but the filmmakers probably liked the ambiguity.

As Kristian, Michael Emery gives a layered performance, equally powerful and vulnerable in his nudity and delivering his lines with a hint of humor or menace (sometimes both at once) as the situation deserves. He also projects an innocence at times that may fool the folks Kristian encounters, but he winks at the audience, who know he is no angel. 

The supporting cast, however, are uneven with the actors who have the briefest screen time — Chris Colon as Henley, Paul Victor as Garreth and Miles Crawford as David — standing out. 

“Birder” is provocative because of its setting, and it ends on a scene that is quite intriguing. If only the rest of the film had been up to that level.

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