Amidst the stunning technical razzle-dazzle of auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), there’s one scene that, perhaps more than others, exemplifies how truly impressive the film is: after discovering the remains of a joint in the possession of his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), washed-up Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) explodes into a mess of self-righteous fury, blaming her for trying to scuttle his chance at a comeback, only to have her turn the tables by giving as good as she gets. Sam slashes her blowhard, absentee dad to the bone, reminding him of just how irrelevant he really is, how little he matters in the larger scheme of the world.
After all, what makes him any different from the faceless slobs who live, toil and die in anonymity: what kind of massive, sick ego makes him think that any of his shit is more important than anyone else’s? The camera stays on Sam after she finishes her rant, however, allowing us to see the pain and sympathy that’s crept over her formerly hard, angry features. Everything she’s said is true, no two ways about it: Riggan doesn’t really have anyone but himself to blame for his current situation. But words can hurt as much as weapons and the instant regret that we see is confirmed when the camera finally turns to show the defeated, shamed shell of a man who stands before her. It’s a lot easier to “cut someone down to size” if you don’t have to actually look them in the eyes, after all.
Much of the attention centered around Iñárritu’s extraordinary follow-up to Biutiful (2010) will probably center around two key elements: the film’s duly mind-blowing cinematography and technical polish and Michael Keaton’s all-in lead performance. To be fair, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that reaction: the filmcraft is masterful and Keaton hasn’t been this commanding since the ’90s. In fact, on the first go-through, both of these aspects loom so large that it might be difficult to focus on everything else. This is tunnel-vision, however, since multiple viewings reveal an endless variety of subtle details, outstanding performances and sly commentary on everything from the nature of celebrity to the virtue of sacrifice and the dangers of complacency. In every way, shape and form, Birdman is an extraordinary film, one of the very best of 2014 and, quite possibly, one of the biggest “no-brainers” for early inclusion into the canon of classic cinema. For the fifth time, in a row, Iñárritu has delivered something unforgettable: how’s that for consistency?
Birdman follows (quite literally) the aforementioned Riggan, a former shining star in Hollywood who portrayed the titular superhero in three blockbuster films before hanging up the costume in order to focus on more “serious” pursuits. We know how this story always ends, however: the general public is much more interested in superhero punch-ups than maudlin drama, so Riggan has seen his star gradually fade as he’s distanced himself from the multiplex junk that used to pay the bills. In a final, desperate bid for relevance, Riggan has turned the Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” into a Broadway show, which he directs and stars in.
When one of Riggan’s co-stars, Ralph (Jeremy Shamos), is taken out of commission by a falling stage light, he’s forced to come up with a replacement at incredibly short notice. Ralph was a terrible actor, however, so Riggan is more than happy to have him gone: he’s even happier when another co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), is able to get her famous actor boyfriend, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), to agree to step in. Riggan’s best friend/producer/lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), is thrilled with the development, since Shiner has instant name appeal and will help give the production the visibility it desperately needs, with opening night on the horizon.
Turns out, however, that Mike is a pretty terrible person: egomaniacal, given to violent, drunken outbursts and so shifty and backhanded as to be one step removed from an outright villain, Mike is a human wrecking ball and the last thing that a struggling play needs. He’s big in the theater world, however, which is what Riggan needs if he’s going to win over people like stodgy, unpleasant critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a Broadway power-broker whose poison pen can either make or kill a production, regardless of its relative merits.
As Riggan juggles all of this, he must also deal with his caustic, perpetually unpleasant daughter/assistant, Sam; his concerned ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan); his pregnant girlfriend/co-star, Laura (Andrea Riseborough); his own feelings of inadequacy and anger, as well as his increasingly precarious mental state. You see, while all of this is going on, Riggan is constantly harassed, mocked, pestered and belittled by his gruff-voiced Birdman alter-ego: Birdman doesn’t think Riggan is living up to his full potential and wants him to don the suit again, in order to resurrect both the feathered crime fighter and his own flat-lined career. As his world begins to collapse into chaos, Riggan becomes increasingly unfettered from the constraints of reality: Riggan Thomson, the man, may be a laughing-stock but there still might be a chance for Birdman to swoop in and save the day. Will Riggan be able to stand his ground, defy the naysayers and fulfill his lifelong dream or will he retreat to the safety of public acceptance and weekend box-office returns?
Right off the bat, Birdman looks and sounds amazing: while the Academy doesn’t always (or often) get their nominations right, I don’t think anyone can deny that Iñárritu’s film absolutely deserved nods for legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera-work, as well as the truly impressive sound design. While the single-take element of the film was thoroughly impressive the first time I watched it, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing subtle cuts: there was no way it could all be one take. After watching it a second time and really focusing on the cinematography, however, I’m pretty sure I’m dead wrong: with the exception of the obvious cuts at the beginning and end, as well as a small handful of moments during the film (the genius transition into the bar, a possible moment where the camera passes into darkness), I’m pretty sure this was all done as a single-take. In a word: wow.
The sheer level of planning and raw talent that goes into planning something like this is truly mind-blowing, especially when one considers the frequency of mirror shots in the film, the seamless integration of CGI elements and the overall length of the piece: DePalma gets plenty of love for his long, single-take scenes but that’s child’s play compared to what Iñárritu and Lubezki come up with here. Even though the camera can’t cut, we still need to be able to transition to other characters, locations, and time spans: it’s in these moments where the film really flexes its considerable muscles. Employing a technique whereby the camera follows one character before “jumping” to another, we seamlessly follow the action from Point A to Point Z, giving us a complete overview of everything that’s happening. It’s dizzying but, once you surrender to it, completely intoxicating: there’s a flow and poetry to Birdman’s camera movement that manages to blur the line between fiction and fact, audience and actors. We’ve seldom been this close to the action and it’s a helluva feeling.
The other benefit to the single-take approach is that it puts a premium on the entire cast’s performances: despite being the “subject” of the film, Keaton’s Riggan is absolutely not the only element that “matters.” Since Iñárritu and Lubezki can’t fall back on the traditional back-and-forth cutting element of most cinematic conversations, we get whole scenes where the camera focuses exclusively on one character, allowing us to see the full range of their emotions. The aforementioned scene with Sam reading her dad the riot act is an obvious highlight but the film is chockfull of scenes just like that. Each and every performer in Birdman needs to be “on” in every scene, making this one of the most masterfully acted films in some time.
While Norton is pretty great as the unrepentant shithead know-it-all and Stone is superb as the broken-down but defiant Sam, the film is full of wonderful performances. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Galifianakis, finding him to be one of the most annoyingly one-note performers to come down the pike in some time but his performance as Jake is, easily, a career highlight: for the first time, Galifianakis actually comes across as a real person, rather than a blustery caricature, and it works marvelously. Naomi Watts brings a genuine sense of pain to her portrayal of Mike’s long-suffering girlfriend and the scene where she breaks down is truly difficult to watch. By contrast, Andrea Riseborough isn’t given nearly enough to do as Riggan’s girlfriend, which is a shame: the few moments where the film focuses on her are some of its most impactful scenes. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t throw a little praise at Lindsay Duncan, who manages to make Tabitha one of the most effortlessly loathsome characters in quite a while. The scene where she, matter-of-factly, tells Riggan how she plans to ruin him, without even giving him the benefit of the doubt, works on a number of levels and she proves integral to the film’s internal machinations.
While the cinematography and acting are out-of-this-world, the rest of Birdman’s filmcraft ably follows suit. The sound design is quite genius and impossibly immersive: the way in which the non-diegetic, percussive score (courtesy of Antonio Sanchez) seamlessly becomes diegetic is a brilliant way to illustrate Riggan’s growing mental divide and used to great effect. The film is also full of so many smart background details, immaculate production design and vibrant colors that the entire film seems to be a constantly breathing, shifting organism: my second viewing revealed so many details that I missed the first time around, it makes me wonder what the fifth viewing will reveal. One of my favorite, subtle bits is the “A thing is a thing, not what people say it is” placard that’s tucked into the corner of Riggan’s dressing room mirror.
The script, credited to four writers (including Iñárritu), constantly loops and wraps around itself: while the film is fairly linear, it’s anything but straight-forward. The parallels between the on-stage world of Riggan’s play and the “real world” of his life are subtle but they help to establish the kind of complex intertexuality that’s so key to filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. Despite how “tricky” the film is, it never feels pretentious or overly showy: indeed, Iñárritu and crew have created an “art film” that manages to feel decidedly down-to-earth, despite its more fantastic flights of fancy.
And, of course, there’s that central performance by Keaton: a former superstar, himself, Keaton IS Birdman and wears the character like a second skin. I’ve heard some critics say that Keaton is a “character actor” and, therefore, not worthy of Academy consideration for his performance. This, of course, is the exact same insult that Tabitha tosses in Riggan’s face like acid: he’s a “celebrity,” not an actor. Just as in the film, the condemnation holds no water: the quality of a performance has nothing to do with the performer and everything to do with the performance, itself. Keaton displays a range and depth, here, that’s consistent with some of the best performances of the year: while I’m not sure that his was the “best,” it was certainly one of the strongest of the year and eminently worthy of award consideration.
All in all, Birdman is a hell of a film: eye-popping, deliciously dark and surprisingly funny, it’s the kind of film that usually gets ignored by the mainstream, which makes its nine Oscar nominations a bit of a head-scratcher. I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve all of them (even without seeing all of the nominees, I know that Birdman belongs there) but I’m certainly surprised. For my money, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014) has a slight (ever so slight) edge over Iñárritu’s latest but that, ultimately, says more about my particular sensibilities than anything: in most ways, the two titans line up pretty evenly, at least in my book.
At the end of the day, Birdman is a towering achievement, a film about the vagaries of backstage life that easily rivals predecessors like Noises Off (1992) and Living in Oblivion (1995). It’s a film about the eternal, pointless crusade for cultural immortality, the never-ending war between “art” and “commerce” that’s split the art community since at least the Middle Ages. It’s a film about accepting one’s place in the world, while refusing to stop reaching for the stars. It’s a film about a father and daughter taking the first, tentative, painful steps towards reconciliation. It’s about ego, self-sacrifice and the need to be loved by someone, anyone, before we shuffle off this mortal coil. Iñárritu’s Birdman is an ambitious, exquisitely made love letter to dreamers, dabblers and the people who love (and hate) them, set against the bustling crowds and marquees of Broadway.
It’s a one-of-a-kind film which, I suppose, makes it just another day at the office for Iñárritu.