Aesthetically designed to challenge, inspire, frustrate, amaze and entertain, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s newest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — his fifth feature since Amores Perros in 2000 — is without a doubt, a poetic modern day cinematic triumph. An ambitious technical marvel and a dark, haunting character study, Birdman is further elevated by its multilayered story and exceptional first-rate performances. In a role that encapsulates the notion of art imitating life, former Batman (1989) star Michael Keaton takes the lead as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood actor, famous for playing the superhero Birdman in a globally successful superhero franchise decades earlier. Riggan, however, is tormented by the voice of Birdman — from inside his head — who criticizes him, urging Riggan to return to the glory days of the Birdman saga, while acting as a bleak reminder of just how far gone his heyday is. In spite of this, Riggan — who hates the mechanics of fame — hopes to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’
While Riggan has something to prove with his new play, we watch him — throughout the feature’s two hour run time — as he attempts to overcome obstacle after obstacle, in an effort to verify his worth. After an accident occurs during one of the show’s rehearsals, acclaimed Broadway star and volatile method actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), is called in to play one of the supporting parts alongside his former girlfriend, first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts). Working together with his best friend, lawyer and producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and his entitled daughter and assistant, Sam Thomson (Emma Stone), Riggan must overcome an array of issues — from personal to political — in order to validate his relevance and climb to the top once more.
With most of the action happening in, and around, the chaotic confines of a theater building, director Alejandro González Iñárritu — along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity (2013), and editor, Douglas Cris, Babel (2006) — has seamlessly staged the film in such a way that it appears to play out in one single continuous take. While we’ve all no doubt seen one-shot experiments before, Birdman may perhaps be the best and most unique of the bunch. Given that the story takes place over several days, time-lapse has been used to mark timeframe shifts, whereas floating steady cam and nifty effects have been utilized to maintain the single shot construct throughout. In a mixture of technical and cinematic mastery, Iñárritu brilliantly and effortlessly switches back and fourth, from Riggan’s reality to his bleak and sometimes beautiful fantasies, all within this long continuous sequence, masterfully shifting between actuality and the mental state of our protagonist as he longs to fly again to the heights he once knew.
Its rhythm being set by Antonio Sanchez’s heart-pounding jazzy drum score, this ‘unbroken’ take required near flawless timing from both its cast and crew. Fortunately, every actor assembled was up for the challenge, with each member delivering a career high performance. Michael Keaton — who even sports a latex suit and parodies Christian Bale’s Dark Knight interpretation — is outstanding as Riggan Thomson, embodying every facet of the complex part; from Riggan’s ego and arrogance, to his enduring insanity, anger and exasperation, right down to the fear of being an old, washed up has-been. Furthermore, Keaton’s background as the caped crusader, and the parallels between his own life and that of the character, create an additional layer of relevance to the role. From strutting down New York’s Times Square, in his underwear, in once scene — a sequence which must have been a logistical nightmare to shoot — to questioning his entire Broadway production the next, Keaton rapidly jumps from absurdity to profundity, nailing all aspects of the script — from its comedic moments, to Riggan’s emotional strain and hardships — delivering the best performance of his career thus far.
Although Birdman is Keaton’s show, the film’s script, penned by director Iñárritu, along with Nicolás Giacobone, Armando Bo, Biutiful (2010), and Alexander Dinelaris Jr., boldly facilitates several other terrific performances, ensuring that every secondary player gets their moment to shine. Edward Norton, Fight Club (1999), similarly to Keaton, plays up his temperamental prima donna image, personifying every story floating around Hollywood in regards to how notoriously difficult he can be to work with. On the other hand, a superb Zach Galifianakis, The Hangover (2009), plays against typecast as Riggan’s friend and producer Jake, the single guy attempting to hold the disastrous production from falling apart. From Emma Stone’s, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), electrifying explosion, as she tells her father that he doesn’t matter any more, to Naomi Watt’s, Mulholland Drive (2001), Lesley, whose opportunity to appear on Broadway informs every decision she makes — even if her single-mindedness leads to the casting of the definitive bad boy artist, Mike Shiner — each player in the feature is fully fleshed out, with some even taking the spotlight off Keaton for a moment or two.
Putting filmmaking techniques and performances aside, Birdman covers various issues figuratively through both its imagery and dialogue while playing as a gleeful satire, dissecting the contemporary film industry. The picture questions the true meaning of art, pits mainstream films against lower budget flicks and theater productions, looks at the truth behind propaganda, and explores the current trend of modern cinema, such as the public’s fixation with the superhero genre and Hollywood’s obsession with opening weekends. Additionally, the film examines our addiction with smart-phones, YouTube and all things viral as well as the hazy uncertain future for older forms of media. Birdman also touches on deeper values including, identity, failure, relevance, relationships and the sacrifice one might make for fame, neglecting family and friends. In a delicious eye-opening sub-plot, a hardened theater critic with the power of destroying Riggan’s dream is threatening his play; it is here we truly understand what certain actors must endure to gain respect and validation within the industry. While the picture is certainly open to numerous interpretations, Birdman works on multiple levels and undeniably cries out for repeat viewings.
Harsh, powerful and constantly funny, Birdman is a rare, surreal cinematic experience that stands out from the crowd, as director Iñárritu fearlessly uncovers several uncomfortable truths about the movie business whilst analyzing the headspace of an artist plummeting to the depths of despair. With a tour de force Michael Keaton, a tremendous cast, flawless direction and a visually striking style, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), will no doubt, one day, be heralded as a classic amongst film connoisseurs, serving as a reminder of just how high thought-provoking cinema can still ultimately soar.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Birdman is released through 20th Century Fox Australia