Perhaps second only to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Birdman is easily one of the most fascinating films in this year’s Oscar line-up. While the conceit seems like a shot at the superherofication of modern Hollywood, in practice it’s a lovingly irreverent examination of the destructive compulsion for an actor (or artist in general) to feel both loved and important. The hand-held camera hovers around the flying egos of Birdman’s erratic cast with the illusion of one long take, putting you right in the nitty gritty of the cast’s backstage antics. Add in the films rapid wit and almost preposterous level of self-awareness and you’ve quite the cinematic gem.
From director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman follows has-been superstar Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) as he tries desperately to re-establish his career with a Broadway show he is writing, directing and starring in. As the opening night looms overhead, with the added stresses of his ex-junky daughter Sam (Emma Stone) reminding him of his irrelevance and his manic co-star Mike (Edward Norton) stirring up chaos, Riggan tries desperately to stay in control of both his play and his waning sense of reality. Also, he might, but probably doesn’t, have actual superpowers. It’s a whole thing.
While Birdman is definitely a film that trades primarily off the strength of its cast, and we’ll get to them soon enough, the biggest star of Birdman is perhaps its DOP, Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki again employs the long, floaty sequences with invisible cuts that made Children of Men and Gravity so wondrous and takes them to their absolute zenith by presenting the entire film as one unbroken take. Transitions are hidden by time lapses and edits camouflaged by motion to capture the magic of a live performance in a way few films have achieved, making you feel like you have a legitimate backstage pass to both the production and Riggan’s psyche.
The viewer becomes an invisible presence stalking the cast. With the strong sense of geography this technique creates, the set itself becomes a living, breathing character, and when combined with that aforementioned sense of voyeurism, comes together to give a profoundly intimate cinematic experience. Iñárritu builds on this free-flowing, jazzy feeling even further by handing the soundtrack over to drummer Antonio Sanchez. While the naked drums work wonderfully to accentuate Riggan’s assorted ups and downs, they can be a little distracting in some of the more subtle moments. Even so, this approach to the score is perfect for Iñárritu’s vision, and by allowing the drummer to cameo in the background at impossible times it becomes the final touch in making Birdman genuinely feel like a live show.
While Birdman’s cinematic accomplishments and quick-witted, pessimistic comedy will garner the most attention, it’s the strong character work that will likely stand the test of time. The irony of the characters and commentary on the state of entertainment are good for a chuckle, and the dramatic stakes of Riggan’s play being a success is fine as a vehicle to move us along, but Birdman indulges in its own concept a tad too much to have anything substantial to say beyond being a brilliantly executed novelty. Once all is said and done, Birdman hinges on its excellent cast and the whimsically broken characters they play. Although their various neuroses all boil down to the same core conflict, the entire cast revel in their roles and make each eccentric character a joy to observe.
Norton is probably the standout as Riggan’s overbearing but gifted co-star. Having fun with his own reputation for overstepping his boundaries and being difficult to work with, Norton infuriates with his arrogance, but his assuredness and muted respect for the craft keep him from being an antagonistic figure. It probably also helps that his character is just as hopelessly lost without acting as Riggan is without celebrity, enjoying many of the film’s best comedic beats by virtue of being someone who is simply too sad a case not to laugh at.
Stone shines as always as Riggan’s daughter/assistant and, when given the chance, explodes with passion and anger. Sadly though, save one fantastic confrontation with her father, her character often acts as the straight man, following the trope as the all-knowing daughter to a not-together father. It’s not as though she isn’t given her moments in the spotlight, and watching Emma Stone play sexy and dejected is certainly worth the price of admission, but given how rounded the script made the rest of the cast it does feel like Sam was the only core character we didn’t really get to know.
Of course, Birdman really is Keaton’s show. Haunted by his role as the fictional superhero Birdman (let’s not get too caught up on the obvious Batman allegory), Riggan is desperate to prove he is better than it, while simultaneously trying to prove he is worthy of what it made him feel. In his own mind he’s a god, all-powerful and revered, mocked by the voice of his Birdman persona for allowing himself to give up what made him special. The reality of the film, the reality of the play and the reality of Riggan’s various fantasies all start blending in and out of each other, with Keaton perfectly conveying his dissent without the script ever needing to explicitly point it out. It’s never easy for an actor to take up a role where their character is acting themselves, especially as Keaton does here, where Riggan becomes progressively better at acting as the film rolls on. Keaton delivers seamlessly, drifting from Riggan arguing backstage to walking straight out onto the set and performing for the audience, to breaking character and fighting with his producer backstage again, all in one swift and fluid take.
Birdman could easily be read as a shot at the Hollywood machine, pessimistic that doing a show about real pain and emotions could somehow be significant in the grand scheme of things. If the film has a thesis beyond its characters, it seems to be the absurdity of saying any film or play is somehow important. In a way the film does devalue its own subtext, perhaps brilliantly so, but it’s still hard to find any sort of message amongst the mounds of meta. But even if it is a puzzle without a solution, the film still gets your mind cranking well after leaving the cinema. Most likely, Iñárritu is telling us not to get too caught up on what it is and whether it means anything, and to simply enjoy it for what it is. Which, in Birdman’s case, is a unique and entertaining character piece that grabs you close and never once lets go.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10