It only takes a minute or two of watching Birdman to fall in love with director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s visual technique. From the opening shot onward, he never cuts away, allowing the camera to float about the set and capture every event in real time for a whopping two hours. That’s what makes the film standout from the crowd. Some directors (Alfonso Cuarón of Gravity and Children of Men) can wow audiences and critics with the use of long takes, but those takes are usually few in number per film, thus spawning discussion of which scenes stood out. With Birdman, Iñárritu has achieved something that could very well be considered unthinkable. Not only is every shot in the film captured in one single shot, but the entire movie is edited to appear as one seamless shot. I’m not sure how he did it, but it’s a masterful accomplishment from a directorial and an editorial standpoint. Unfortunately, his movie as a whole doesn’t rise above its technical brilliance, resulting in a high-flying but moderately hollow visual treat.
As the film opens, we meet Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton, in a magnificent, career-resurrecting performance), a washed-up Hollywood actor who was made famous by playing a superhero called Birdman in an old movie franchise. If it sounds like a play on Keaton’s own life, it kind of is, even though Keaton isn’t what I would deem “washed-up.” Riggan, now an older and struggling poor bloke, has an inspirational idea and that is to adapt Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He wants to serve as writer, producer, and star, and he wants it to be for the stage instead of the screen. All of this in hopes of reinvigorating his dying (dead) career.
In the mix of this comeback story is Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his lawyer and best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis), first-time actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), and critically acclaimed actor Mike (Edward Norton). They all come together to work on the play, some acknowledging and ridiculing Riggan’s ridiculous desire for popularity while others do their best to sympathize with him. These characters converge in antithetic manners, crossing paths and interlocking (sometimes literally) all in an effort to make this Broadway drama come to life.
That’s how Riggan sees it, anyway. A lot of these characters don’t care so much about the play as they do about their own personal gain; not disrespecting the craft but instead looking at Riggan as a washed-up nobody that has no talent unless he’s in a bird costume. Throughout the movie (and not as often as you may expect), Riggan is troubled by visions of Birdman (also played by Keaton), the hero from the popular film franchise that doesn’t look unlike Batman, thus indicating the similarity between the character Riggan and the man Keaton. Birdman now serves as a voice in the back of Riggan’s head, a cold-blooded antagonist, criticizing him for every decision that may hint at possible success. These are some of the best moments in the movie, as we see Keaton’s performance fully unlocked, during which he delves deep into this character’s psychosis. In these moments, Keaton, now up for an Oscar for his work, proves that he is indeed an actor full of unrealized greatness.
As Riggan struggles with his inner demon, the movie spends much time with the supporting players, all giving suitably strong work. As Riggan’s daughter, Emma Stone (also nominated for an Oscar for her work) is a full throttle machine, giving her all in a performance that finds a deep emotional core that is riveting, breathing life into her subpar character. There is a scene in which Sam lovingly but also harshly proclaims her feelings for her father to his face, and Stone’s performance, met with the intensity of the lingering camera, elevate it to an emotional depth that the movie itself never reaches.
Edward Norton is superb as Mike, the acclaimed actor who clearly knows more about the craft than Riggan, but also plays his role in the drama as a know-it-all dickhead. But you can’t take your eyes off him. Interestingly, no one seems to be talking about Zach Galifianakis, who takes his Alan Garner and Between Two Ferns style of comedy and kicks it to the curb, nailing it as a serious lawyer/play producer who tries to do what is best for Riggan’s wellbeing. I’m a big fan of Galifianakis’ stand-up comedy as well as his screen comedy, but his dramatic performance here is shockingly good.
As Birdman goes on, the cast gets better but the editing style becomes familiar, still impressive to watch but almost taking away the brilliance of the style and lowering it to becoming a “norm.” I’ve always loved the continuous shot formula, as it can showcase a director’s ability to craft a scene and a cast’s ability to perform in an onstage play-like setting. But when your entire movie is nothing but one long take (or at least an illusion that appears as such), some of the wowing effects are lost.
That being said, there were definitely moments throughout Birdman that made my jaw drop, especially the almost bound-to-be-infamous Times Square sequence, as well as a sequence that had Riggan flying through the city, succumbing to the inner screaming of Birdman. Most of these scenes (and even the simple ones in which the camera tracks with our characters down dirty, grimy backstage hallways) are engulfed by a terrific soundtrack, consisting of barely anything except the boisterous pounding of drums. I have no idea how Iñárritu made some of this work, nor how he even imagined putting it on screen, let alone getting it done, but it’s nothing short of breathtaking. I don’t think Birdman is as great as some people think, but it sure is meritable.
1 hr. 59 mins.
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu