by E. McDonnell
**** 4 Stars
‘There is something a little disturbing and tense in the never-ending, relentless single view, as well as something magical.’
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Actors: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zack Galifianakis, Naomi Watts
Plot Synopsis: Birdman is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to revive his fading career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway Play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.
Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s bleak and surreal backstage black- comedy drama which, I think, is one of the kookiest and crazy films I have ever seen. The film was wildly hailed by the critics (despite depicting critics as bitter, complacent and shallow, which critics definitely are not – mostly…) and even went on to win countless awards such as; The Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director ,Best Cinematography, Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor (for· Michael Keaton), Best Screenplay, and the BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography- and the list goes on and on…
And after watching its opening credits, it’s not hard to see why it won so many awards;
first and foremost, the technical aspects of the film are amazing. In a setting that could be seen as very ordinary, Birdman manages to make the theatre a surreal spectacle. It is a beautifully orchestrated film particularly as the vast majority of the film is made to look like a single shot. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work is superb, using a first-person point-of-view, roving eye to capture the protagonist’s slowly disintegrating mental state. Most stories that appear to be filmed in one take, use the technique to tell a story in real time, however, Birdman leaps across weeks of time, even as it appears to be taking place in real time, and it gives the story a dreamlike quality, when the characters might exit one room and enter another several days later. There is something a little disturbing and tense in the never-ending, relentless single view, as well as something magical. I couldn’t help but appreciate how much thought must have gone into the concept and the technical pacing and composition of the shots themselves. One moment, the intricately choreographed tracking shots, zoom through narrow hallways of the theatre feel claustrophobic, with the camera focuses on quiet conversations, and the next second, the camera glides above the marquee where you can breathe again, soaring between the skyscrapers down Broadway in surrealist flying sequences. I tried at first to look closely to find where the cuts probably happened, but after a while I realised that just enjoying being taken on this journey, immersed in the world of the theatre was much more enjoyable.
To further complement this surreal experience is the unique and kooky percussive, drum-heavy score from Antonio Sanchez which not only gives the film a jazzy, artsy and edgy vibe throughout but also turns Riggan’s deteriorating mental state into a ticking time bomb. As the restless action unfolds, you’ll hear strange passages of music, orchestral swells or insistent nerve-jangling jazz drumming – music that may or may not be diegetic. Is Riggan using it as background music in the show? Can the characters hear it as well as us? Is it all in his mind?
Another highlight of the film that can’t be ignored is the immense acting talent within the film. The central theme of Birdman is the peril of being an actor and everything that comes with the job. So, in perfect fashion, Iñárritu has assembled an amazingly well-rounded ensemble cast. Every cast member has their time to shine, all finding ways to provide glimmers of humour, craziness, or hushed humanity throughout this dark and snappy, film. Special mention must go to Michael Keaton, as Riggan Thomson, an egotistical actor attempting a comeback; Edward Norton, as a boastful method actor and Emma Stone, as Thomson’s world-weary, wise-ass, emotionally bruised daughter. The casting of the characters is pretty much perfect, with the actors wrestling with their own public personas through characters within the film. Keaton’s Riggan is a washed-up actor who has come to Broadway to revive his career, trying to regain the former glory he achieved as the winged action hero Birdman, which, in a way, mirrors the fact that he too, is well known for playing a superhero (Batman) 20-plus years ago in real life, playing an actor who peaked 20-plus years ago as a superhero in the film. A coincidence… I think not!
Keaton gives a fantastic performance, but it’s not the only one in the movie. Emma Stone and Ed Norton, both rightfully nominated in the supporting categories for their performances, are brilliant. Also confronting his real-life reputation, Norton as Mike Shiner (who comes with the reputation of being a little difficult to work with over the years), finds just the right balance between arrogance and sincerity. His chemistry with Stone, and the desperate emptiness that connects their two characters, could have easily taken up more of the film.
One very clever aspect of the film that I noticed was sometimes it was hard to tell if the characters were talking as themselves, or performing – particularly in Edward Norton’s character who goes from compassionate councillor for Emma Stone’s character to a method acting, narcissistic actor with a massive ego who all of the other characters have to deal with – particularly Riggan. This just adds to the fantastical elements of the film and makes for an all more interesting debate.
Talking of debates, the film explores a number of issues related to the industry. It’s a movie that challenges the way we absorb art, critiques the idea of culture, spits in the face of critics, looks at different actors’ approaches to the craft, the journey to being an actor and how it can affect those who have already peaked – in the alien new world of reality shows and social media. Though these issues could prove controversial, as Birdman could be seen as a cynical take on comic book culture and the superhero, it is very much of this time and explores the issues with balanced and thoughtful arguments. One thing that does make the film a little more downbeat is the fact there are a few very ‘artsy’ parts in the film about how terrible the movies are today, and about how nobody makes real art these days. This could be read as satire but, in a more cynical way, a critique of movies altogether which, did become a little bit tiresome after a good hour. Though Birdman is dark and at times, there are still moments of unexplained magic and humour. There is a surprising amount of humour actually, which gives the film another level of depth that just adds to its uniqueness.
Ultimately, the film is very surprising, entertaining, artsy, satirical, emotional and serious whilst also being humorous; this is greatly helped by the acting performances of all of the eccentric and complex characters, which are excellent. It is funny and witty, beautifully filmed with some amazing sequences – what more could you want from a superhero film?
Birdman is currently available on BBC iPlayer and Netflix. It was rated 15 by the BBFC.