Review – Birdman (2014)
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
As someone who watches a lot of films, there is nothing quite so exciting as when you see something you have never seen before, an entirely original cinematic vision. There is simply no other way to describe Birdman – full title Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – the new black comedy from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (the director of Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros who has here rebadged himself Alejandro G. Iñárritu).
Birdman centres on Riggan Thomson, a middle aged movie star who is living in the shadow of the superhero character he played in three blockbusters in the early 1990s. Birdman has become Riggan’s tormentor. As he slowly but surely breaks down, it is Birdman’s voice he hears personifying all of his insecurity and self-doubt. In an effort to regain his significance and artistic integrity, Riggan has gone all in, writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Days before opening night, an accident serendipitously befalls Riggan’s weak co-star and the opportunity arises to introduce Broadway superstar Mike Shiner into the cast. While Shiner’s addition brings a spike in critical and popular interest in the production, his difficult personality only adds further weight to the load of a man who is only just keeping it together.
While it explores themes of legacy, narcissism, parenthood and marriage, Birdman is first and foremost a film about art and creativity. It explores the tension between the highbrow world of the theatre and the lowbrow world of Hollywood, taking measured pot-shots at both, as the two worlds collide with Broadway increasingly relying on casting movie stars to get bums on seats. In one scene we see Riggan hosting a group of reporters in his dressing room. While one asks highfalutin questions about the theories of Roland Barthes, another is more interested in completely fabricated rumours that pig semen is Riggan’s skin treatment of choice, while others’ ears only prick up when Riggan accidentally utters the magic words “Birdman 4.” While Lindsay Duncan’s acerbic New York Times critic is used to comment on the self-seriousness of the highbrow, the film also laments the fact that some of our best actors – Michael Fassbender, Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Renner – are donning the spandex to play blockbuster superheroes for a paycheque (though no mention is made of Edward Norton’s turn in The Incredible Hulk). As an aside, it will be interesting to see whether contemporary references like these, and others to George Clooney and Justin Bieber, with ultimately date the film.
The brilliance of Birdman lies in its complete unity of form and content. Iñárritu obviously had a very clear idea of what this film was to be and every cinematic element, without fail, is consistent with that vision and with the thematic concerns of the film: be it style, casting, location, performance or score. It is a very rare achievement.
The most striking of these elements is Birdman’s visual style, devised through close collaboration between Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar winner for his work on Gravity). The majority of the film is carefully designed to feel like we are seeing one long, continuous take despite the fact the action is taking place over a period of weeks. This was not a Russian Ark-style single shot, but rather the result of some careful planning and editing which conceals the cuts as we manoeuvre through the labyrinth of corridors backstage at the St James theatre where the film was shot. This continuous-take style blurs the line between film and theatre. The long takes give the actors time and space to perform, and the progression of the film is controlled by the movement of its performers rather than the pace of its editing. It creates in Birdman that sense of immediacy which can usually only be found in the theatre, but does so without the film feeling ‘stagey.’ It is a masterful exercise in technique.
Iñárritu’s casting is on the money from the top down. The extra-textual significance of Michael Keaton’s casting has not been lost on many. Keaton played Batman twice in the early 1990s, roughly the same period that Riggan Thomson is supposed to have made his three Birdman movies, and like Thomson, Keaton’s career has not equalled those heights in the two decades since. However, this is not just a piece of stunt casting. As a performer, Keaton is perfect for this role. He has always had a manic quality to him – he has the crazy eyes – and that really works for this character in the middle of a breakdown. In a similar extra-textual fashion, the casting of Edward Norton as Mike Shiner plays on his reputation as a serious method actor whose approach can often rub his co-stars the wrong way. Norton steals the first half of the movie before the back end really becomes the Michael Keaton show. Emma Stone is strong and has some great scenes as Thomson’s daughter and PA, just out of rehab, who is not afraid to drop some hard truths on her father, and special mention should also go to Zach Galifianakis who delivers an incredibly toned down performance, stifling his natural comedic sensibilities in his role as Thomson’s supportive producer.
Birdman’s off-kilter rhythm is driven by Antonio Sanchez’s unique jazz percussion score. Sanchez intentionally set the drums slightly out of tune to enhance the sense of unease that these rhythms create. Given its incredible effectiveness, it is somewhat of a disgrace that the score was deemed ineligible for Oscar consideration by the Academy. Adding to the film’s quirky, ‘meta’ tone, there are two moments in the film in which the camera pans past a drummer playing the music we had assumed was non-diegetic.
Birdman is a daringly original piece of work. It is pure cinema and it will be written about and studied for many years to come.
Review by Duncan McLean
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