You probably haven’t seen this underrated 2004 thriller. Here’s why you should watch it now

A woman holds a birthday cake in Birth.
New Line Cinema
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Over the next few weeks, many people will watch their very first Jonathan Glazer movie. And what a first! The Zone of Interest, whose improbable Academy Award nomination for Best Picture will surely draw the eyes of unsuspecting Glazer virgins, is a pitiless panopticon — an anti-drama that gazes with an almost scientific remove upon the perfect dream life of a Nazi family living next door to a death camp. Watching the film, the uninitiated might assume that this kind of dispassionate, rigidly framed voyeurism is the English director’s whole deal. In fact, part of what makes Glazer one of this century’s most exciting filmmakers is that he never repeats himself, even stylistically. All that really connects each of his four features is a general boldness of vision.

You could cite “universal critical acclaim” as another unifying factor of his filmography were it not for the rather divisive reception to Glazer’s second movie, which is very bold indeed. Premiering to its share of catcalls at the Venice Film Festival 20 years ago this autumn, Birth cast Nicole Kidman as a widow whose comfy upper-crust life is upended when she’s confronted by a 10-year-old boy claiming to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. Some rejected the whole premise as ridiculous claptrap, objecting to the way Glazer glazed pulp subject matter in art-movie portentousness. Others were just skeeved out by the implication of sexual chemistry between a grown woman and a child — a tension that culminates in an infamous bath for two.

A woman meets a child in a tunnel in Birth.
New Line Cinema

Of course, to borrow the title of another Glazer movie, Birth is meant to get under the skin. The queasiness is the point of an off-kilter psychodrama that posits love as a kind of madness, short-circuiting our capacity for rational thinking. That the characters behave in a way that’s unbelievable is part and parcel to that notion. Which is to say, Glazer, his co-writers, and his cast somehow manage to make the implausibility of the material oddly plausible: They carve out a space where it’s possible, even seductively tempting, to entertain the thought that this is how someone really would react in this situation.

Two decades later, Birth still wouldn’t pass for psychological realism, but was it ever aiming for that? The movie walks a nervy tightrope between taking its outlandish story dead seriously and occupying a more heightened reality, an emotional Twilight Zone. The spectacular opening minutes set a tone far afield of naturalism, as Glazer follows a character, never officially introduced, as he jogs through a Manhattan park — a long, unbroken shot set to a swell of music that portends an impending collision with destiny, while also framing the events to come in operatic terms. Alexandre Desplat’s score is one of his finest, a blanket of fairy-tale whimsy wrinkled by notes of unease. Looking beyond it, there’s a symphonic quality to all of Birth, which sometimes seems to proceed in movements, starting with the overture of its inciting incident.

A cut from the cavernous (some would say canal-like) underside of the bridge where the man falls to a baby entering the world efficiently establishes the illogical explanation for what follows. With a similar economy, Glazer moves the story forward, leaping 10 years in a blink and offering a short scene of Kidman in a cemetery that tells us the nature of her relationship to the fallen man and the extent to which it still weighs on her heart. It’s only a few more minutes before she’s approached in her swanky home by Sean (Cameron Bright), who shares her dead husband’s name and explains — with a spooky conviction that borders on convincing — how that’s not a coincidence.

For a good long while, Birth doesn’t tip its hand, letting the audience wonder right along with Anna what to believe. That we never meet the adult Sean — heard only in a brief, ironic voice-over at the top and seen only from behind as he races to his doom — is a canny way to leave us in the dark. (It’s not as though we can compare Bright’s unnervingly stoic performance to the man the boy claims to be.) Because the film similarly declines to tell us much about the deceased, we’re forced to look to Anna alone for clues; the mystery is built around her reactions.

A young boy smiles for the camera in Birth.
New Line Cinema

It’s not even clear for a while what kind of movie Birth is. Gazer shrouds it in enough metaphysical ambiguity that an M. Night Shyamalan revelation always remains a distinct possibility. The director also deviously plays with horror-movie insinuations. Doesn’t Sean kind of fit the profile of a garden variety Bad Seed, one of those creepy movie kids much too intense and serious for his age? An early series of shots, right before the two meet, has the vibe of a supernatural rupture: Sean looks across the apartment he’s just entered, the lights suddenly go out, and Anna emerges from the inky black, illuminated by the glow of birthday candles. A decade later, Glazer would pull on this thread with his nightmare alien trance thriller Under the Skin. In Birth, the dread could be a misdirect or a clue to something more sinister.

Most characters respond to Sean’s confession as real adults would; they’re alternately amused, annoyed, unnerved, and concerned. Danny Huston, who plays Anna’s new fiancé, gets to do a whole spectrum of waning patience, even locating some droll comedy in the realization that he’s a Baxter competing with either the ghost of his beloved’s love or a very persistent grade-schooler. Glazer creates a credible social circle around his emotionally confused heroine, which may be what tripped up some of the film’s detractors: Birth applies all the components of a serious highbrow drama (including an intriguingly seeded class subtext) to a story that verges on hokum.

Even those who called the film a crock tended to concede that Kidman is remarkable in it. So much of Birth‘s power rests on her wordless uncertainty. Her big scene is a close-up buffet of anguished emoting on a Falconetti scale: the long, unbroken survey of her features during a concert, all the terror and hope of possibility scrawled across her face. But that’s merely the most overt example of a performance that strives, in increments and vagaries, to make the preposterous persuasive. Kidman manages the superhuman feat of plotting a credible journey from skeptical denial to true-believer mania: You’ll believe a woman would crawl into a bathtub with a little boy insisting he’s actually her husband. What bravery, too, to go with Glazer to the edge of transgression, to take seriously a taboo-teasing dynamic. Watching Birth, you realize Kidman could easily star in a remake of The Innocents, if she hadn’t basically already done so.

Glazer does eventually solve his mystery. The resolution caught plenty of disappointment at the time — partly for how it sacrifices the intriguing ambiguity he’d cultivated, partly for tilting the film into a new melodramatic register. But it’s hard to hate a development so unexpected and so faintly deranged; however one might have guessed the film would answer its central question, this probably wasn’t it. The “twist,” as it were, productively complicates the love story on which Birth rests. Part of its tricky emotional calculus is the suggestion that maybe Anna didn’t know Sean as well as she thought. If we can project onto the person in the bed next to us, why not onto some new avatar? Is this kid any less Sean than the version she’s created in her head?

A woman looks at a child in Birth.
New Line Cinema

If there’s another through-line of this great director’s body of work, it may be the essential unknowability of people, be they ruthless gangsters, workaholic war criminals, or a strange mankind glimpsed through the eyes of a space invader. With Birth, Glazer bewitchingly applies that idea to the mystery of the human heart, risking ridicule in asking just how far you would follow it. Marriage, as they say, is a leap of faith. Sometimes, it’s off the side of a skyscraper.

Birth is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, and available to rent or purchase through the major digital services. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.