Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s incredible Birdman is a calibre of film that comes around once every now and then. It is a film that could potentially influence the way you think about cinema and the possibilities that the medium can offer.
Birdman is captivating, awe-inspiring work that takes a fascinatingly layered narrative about an aging actor, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) attempting to finance, direct and star in his own stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story and escape a career defined by one achievement. As he struggles to bring the story to life, he is suffering with anxieties of failure and a loss of purpose. Once the star of the blockbuster series, Birdman, Riggan walked away at the height of his fame in pursuit of other projects.
Inarritu (Amores Perros and Babel) is a celebrated Mexican director whose films have notoriously been bleak multi-thread narratives entwined by circumstance and fate. Not only is this a more focused single setting and story, but it is a more comedic project. While I need a re-watch to take in some of the dialogue I think I missed on a first viewing, the script is consistently hilarious throughout.
Birdman is made to appear as if it comprises of one single shot, and yet the story doesn’t unfold in real-time. Emmanuel Lubezki’s (The Tree of Life, Gravity) genius ensures that this camera does things we cannot even fathom. The transitions aren’t designed to be completely invisible either – we know when one take is ending and another begins – but the fact that the camera is continually active, and the activity on-screen ceaseless ensures that this is a film that constantly offers surprises. The rare cuts are very clever in connecting the passing of time – sometimes mere minutes, others several hours – with the visual cues enough to convey where the story picks up.
While the idea, as technically adept as it gets, may be dismissed as a pretentious trick or gimmick, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t serve the film well. I thought it worked perfectly, taking us through the bowels of the theatre – the stage, the hallways and the dressing rooms – onto the rooftop and into the streets of New York in a fluid plane of motion. The actors are challenged, like they would be on stage in a theatre, to deliver many lines of dialogue and get to their marks in tune with the camera. Some of these exchanges are so lengthy and ferociously animated – the scene were Riggan rips apart the critic at the bar is an extraordinary piece of acting, while the first meeting between Riggan and Mike sets the bar high very early – that it takes your breath away.
At times Antonio Sanchez’s solely percussion score is in full force, but it resurges again in brief spurts to punctuate a line of dialogue or an emotion with a drum beat. I can’t recall a film that uses music in this way and I found it very effective.
Some knowledge of Keaton’s career is perhaps a prerequisite to appreciating Riggan and Keaton’s performance here. Keaton has become a maverick of the industry, but hasn’t had a starring role for a long time. He was once a costumed hero, in Tim Burton’s two Batman films, which along with Beetlejuice were the roles that have come to define his career. Save for some voice acting in Pixar films and portraying a couple of smarmy bad guys in RoboCop and Need For Speed, which he relishes, Keaton hasn’t been up to much in the last decade. But he has come back in a blaze of glory. All of the anguish, frustration, embarrassment and desperation that comes through Riggan seems fueled by Keaton himself.
The supporting cast is exemplary too, and so important to this film working. Norton’s character shares a resemblance to his own career, too. For a long time he was a poster boy, but his career has been marred by a reputation of being difficult to work with. Mike Shiner is a gifted stage actor certain to be a drawcard, but as Riggan discovers, a handful to work with. Emma Stone, as Riggan’s troubled daughter and assistant, has perhaps never been better, while Naomi Watts is very funny as Riggan’s insecure co-star in the play. The sequences between Riggan and his ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, feel so honest thanks to Ryan’s chemistry with Keaton, while Zach Galifainakas, who plays Riggan’s agent, is also terrific in his most mature comedic role.
Lindsay Duncan’s snobby theatre critic who admits that she dislikes Hollywood celebrities working within the theatre world and will attempt to sabotage Riggan’s play with a negative review, will no doubt anger some viewers. The intense cynicism around criticism, and how difficult it is to be a success, has the capacity to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth too. Still, I found this avenue fascinating. There have been several other films in 2014 that deal with the creative process and an aging performer struggling to adapt a story, find their character and acclimate to the changing times. All of them – Clouds of Sils Maria, The Humbling and Venus In Fur – are successful in their own way, but none of them possess the technical prowess of Birdman.
Conceptually bold and brilliantly written and directed, I loved everything about Birdman. Within minutes the film has done its dance and laid out its rules. If you let yourself get swept up in its aesthetic it will be hugely rewarding, and even when the plot gets morose and odd it always entertains.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writer(s): Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris & Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough
Runtime: 119 minutes
Release date(s): Australia & New Zealand: January 15 2015