REVIEW: Birdman (2014)

Michael Keaton returns to prominence in this instant cinematic classic. Cal finally gets around to seeing it. 

It’s frankly miraculous that a motion picture like Birdman can sneak its way into theatres in this day and age. Subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” this audacious, modestly-budgeted indie could never have been produced within the Hollywood system without major changes that would have relinquished the feature’s integrity. It may essentially be an “arthouse” flick, but Birdman is incredibly compelling and possesses the guts to explore big ideas relating to the Hollywood process, actors who are passed their prime, and, most impressively, the critiquing of film and theatre. Directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (late of 21 Grams and Babel), this is easily the filmmaker’s most accessible work, though it’s unclear just how well it will play with more mainstream viewers.

Decades ago, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was popular and rich, riding high on his success of playing the superhero Birdman in the first three movies of a lucrative Hollywood franchise. Still struggling to escape from the shadow of Birdman, Riggan puts everything on the line to produce a Broadway production, adapting Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for the stage, with co-stars Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough) on hand to support the undertaking. However, the show – which is perceived as something of a vanity project – is waist-deep in problems, with actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) proving extremely difficult to work with, and with technical issues galore. Adding to the pressure is some mounting legal troubles, a lack of money, and the presence of Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who’s struggling with post-rehab life. All Riggan can do is attempt to hold himself together as he’s haunted by voices in his head and deals with those around him who pose a threat to the show’s success.

Birdman’s central hook is that its edited to give the illusion that it was captured in one single, unbroken tracking shot, though it does not unfold in real-time – hours and days pass seamlessly as the camera moves from one place to another. Happily, it works, and it’s a magnificent feat on the part of Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity).

An anonymous quote is taped to the mirror in Riggan’s dressing room which reads: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”It’s an interesting quote which invites rumination, and, indeed, one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes observes Riggan speaking his mind to a cynical theatre critic, slamming a review she’s penning by pointing out that her writing is nothing but a chain of labels backed up by her own potentially meritless opinion, arguing against the need for reviewers and, by extension, negating the need for this review. Nevertheless, as the quote says, a thing is a thing, and calling reviews futile is just a label for these particular things, isn’t it?

Phew. Still with me? Some will label Birdman as pretentious based on the subtext at play here, but is it really fair to call it pretentious when it satirises and mocks pretentiousness? Sure, the movie may be a bit on the pretentious side, but it is fun. It’s challenging to pigeonhole Birdman into a single genre, as it almost defies explanation. It’s perhaps best described as a philosophical dramedy with fantastical elements and meta overtones (Riggin has a number of fantasies throughout). The movie also feels very much in line with the works of Iñárritu, as some of the more dramatic moments do hit hard, and you get the chance to feel every ounce of pain experienced by the troubled ensemble. However, Birdman is not as dour as 21 Grams or the borderline intolerable Babel –  it often plays out with dark comedy elements. The story eventually comes to a head with a rather unexpected ending that’s not entirely satisfying since it’s open for interpretation (like any arthouse feature…), but it is fascinating and could have been a lot worse.

After viewing Birdman, I did wonder what the feature would have been like if the single-take approach was jettisoned. However, it’s difficult to imagine the film being as remarkable, fast-paced or as technologically extraordinary if it was produced more conventionally. Furthermore, restricting the scope and being unable to move outside the theatre often renders Birdman more intimate, heightening the effectiveness of this story. After all, Riggan is the central focus, and the camera never drifts from him very far, allowing this examination of Riggan’s breakdown to really take flight. Added to this, plays on Broadway are performed live, hence the appearance of the bulk of the movie being one take ties in with the nature of a live Broadway show, even if there are hidden cuts and scenes would have taken many, many takes to perfect. It’s fortunate that the execution is so seamless; we never see any crew members, lighting rigs or dolly tracks, nor do we see palpable reflections of any camera equipment even though scenes frequently take place in front of mirrors.

Naturally, the parallels between Keaton and his character are readily apparent, as Keaton was a big star after having appeared in Batman and Batman Returns as the titular superhero, and since then, has never been quite as successful. This is the thespian’s first leading man role in a while, and it’s possibly the best performance of his whole career. It’s a multi-tiered part, and Keaton handles the various aspects with utmost confidence; he’s a wonderful on-screen presence and a joy to watch. Fortunately, the supporting cast are just as solid, particularly Zach Galifianakis as Riggin’s lawyer, putting the Hangover-style monkey business behind him to play a dramatic role, and pulling it off remarkably well. Who knew he could play anything besides a buffoon?

Also of note are Watts and the lovely Stone, the latter of whom again proves that she’s both gorgeous and talented. Meanwhile, Norton is an absolute hoot playing the conceited, much-loved theatre actor who’s recruited to fill a sudden vacancy, and immediately begins trying to exert control over the entire production. Norton’s character is extremely volatile as well, and it’s amusing to watch the former Hulk here since he has such a reputation of being difficult to work with.

The intense character study at the centre of Birdman draws you in, while you also marvel at the extraordinary technical achievements. Iñárritu really had his work cut out for him, and the quality of the finished product speaks volumes about this talented filmmaker. Of course, it will not work for everybody – anyone expecting Keaton to recreate Batman or engage in action or stuntwork will need to maintain an open mind here, and let Iñárritu plot his own unique, breathtakingly unconventional path. For this reviewer, it definitely works.

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