“Happy Birthday, Emma”
After their screening premiere of Strange Bird at the Buffalo International Film Festival, co-writers Daniel Mecca (who also co-directs with Timothy Ringwood) and Conor O’Donnell explained how much of the short’s final cut was found in the editing room. This makes perfect sense as there’s no dialogue for almost the entire first half, replaced instead by quick vignettes delving into Detective Henry Harker’s (Justin Osterthaler) fragile state of mind. It’s a boldly relevant choice because we don’t need words to understand this man’s pain as he travels from diner to diner, flashing his badge for discounts and dreaming about an angelic day with his sister Emma (Kelly Fitzpatrick) by his side. He may smile at these memories, but the hurt never leaves his eyes.
A little more is gleaned with each recollection—seemingly random moments held close. Faces are unnecessary because he knows everyone by instinct. The little things matter to him whether a flowing dress in the sunlight or a rose for Emma’s hair, anything to bring her memory to the front of his consciousness. But suddenly the face of a young gentleman incongruously appears, bright and kind. He (Patrick Clark‘s Simon) is Henry’s destination. This pilgrimage is to find Simon and see whether the evil everyone warned him about was finally visible beneath the luster of friendship. This is a man he trusted, one who let him down in the worst way possible. The confrontation therefore proves as much about Henry seeing Simon as it does to look within.
To a cop evil should be black and white. Knowing where it exists a part of the job you cannot turn off no matter who may possess it. He failed in this endeavor and hopes to find an answer why that can never be explained. Why do heinous acts of violence like the opening’s stranglehold highlighting Emma’s desperation and helplessness to break free occur? What makes someone harness such anger and vitriol to willingly extinguish the light he/she saw mere minutes earlier? And do we all have that capacity if circumstances are correct? Is Henry more evil or less for wanting revenge against the man who killed his sister? One could argue murder is murder. Rage only needs but an instant to flip the switch.
Bookending their tale with hands wrapped around necks, each respective close-up provides the juxtaposition of suffering and acceptance. Love becomes as much a weapon as a gun ever could—the driving force for destruction either in its name or in its sudden absence. This event is no different, marked by the deceased’s birthday. Henry’s present becomes homicide, the graduation of a good man into bad, moral into amoral with emotion clouding judgment and duty until neither exists. In the end victims prove unimportant as violence reveals itself as a selfish act without rhyme or reason, only an unconscious craving for power and satisfaction. We all have it in us and we all give people pause to know it lies dormant inside. The lucky ones simply never find themselves pushed into action.