Birdman, the latest effort from distinctive director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárittu, is a particularly bold film. Not only is it very technically impressive, but it deals with risky themes like the differentiation between pop culture and art and the inherent impotence of critics, which when handled poorly can make a film look self-conscious and above reproach. Luckily for both the movie and the audience, Birdman negotiates these incredibly complex and substantial themes deftly and with a sense of scope and proportion, touching on modern pop-culture, egomania, self-delusion, and the fundamental purpose of art; no small order for a film so immediately accessible. Beautifully written and performed, with a striking and unique soundtrack alongside genuinely breath-taking cinematography, Birdman is a strong contender for the best film of 2014.
The story follows Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton, taking a good-natured jab at his own career), a washed-up superhero movie star who, in a desperate attempt to be taken seriously, is writing, directing, and starring in a stage adaptation of the short stories of Raymond Carver. The production threatens to close at every turn, and Riggan is forced to hire the pretentious but beloved actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) the day before preview shows open. Shiner chooses to make every scene he’s in a nightmare to direct, and embodies the antithesis of Keaton as a performer. On top of the shaky production, his dysfunctional family also pressures Riggan, with an estranged yet affectionate wife (Amy Ryan) and his drug-addicted and caustic daughter (Emma Stone).
Zach Galifinakis (as the play’s financial manager) and Naomi Watts (as one of the other actors) round out this truly prestigious cast. Everyone brings their best, with career best turns from both Galifinakis and Stone, with another reliably brilliant performance for Norton. Keaton is phenomenal in the leading role, playing both Riggan and Riggan’s ego, which takes the form of the leather-suited Birdman character from his glory days. Despite the surrounding family conflicts and the ever-building tension of the production, this mental tug-of-war is the central conflict of the film. It is an exploration of the inner workings of the creative mind rarely seen in mainstream cinema, and makes for absolutely fascinating viewing. Riggan’s slow mental breakdown is overwhelming to behold, Keaton managing to showcase remarkable restraint and honesty in his portrayal of these crushingly irreconcilable emotions.
His gradual breakdown gives the script room for interesting introspection, and also allows for some highly entertaining fantasy sequences. In his head, Riggan can move objects with his mind, fly, and fabricate a blockbuster action sequence at a moment’s notice, aided by some surprisingly solid effects for a film with a limited budget. Despite this, the most impressive visual effect is by far the cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki (behind last year’s Gravity), quite possibly the best DP working today, achieves mesmerising continual motion in Birdman, with the entire film shot to look as if it is all one take. Whilst some may find this trick to be somewhat gimmicky, there is an incredible feeling of intimacy and closeness within the compact and claustrophobic backstage spaces, nicely paralleling Riggin’s own mental state. Rather than cutting from scene to scene, the camera follows particular characters around the mazy backstage halls, and fluid movement never undermined its dense film language. By following the most interesting action (as much of the action happens in parallel, as in many other ‘play-within-a-play’ structures), the audience’s curiosity is perpetually satisfied with each twist and turn. Its final one-take sequence is perhaps the gutsiest and most well executed final act of any film in recent memory, a transcendent display from both Lubezki and Iñárittu that makes Birdman absolutely unforgettable.
The film’s depiction of performative art appears, at first glance, reductive. Is art really about the artist in the end? To answer this question, one need only look at Birdman’s structure. The action of the film so closely parallels Riggin’s own mental deterioration and plays with his interiority. Both Shiner and Riggin are plagued by an obsession with capturing reality in their performances. The theatre itself illustrates Riggin’s conflict between his interior anxiety and exterior fame, with its claustrophobic backstage and the wide-open stage. By the end of the film, Riggin becomes both artist and art, and his surroundings reflect this. This polished construction gets more complex the more closely it is examined, and is a mark of a truly thoughtful film.
Birdman is a near flawless film, and any hiccups are swiftly forgotten by a directorial flourish or a big laugh (even with all its Big Themes, it is still a very funny film). It is the oddest Oscar contender in some years and whilst its many idiosyncrasies may prove irksome to some viewers, we could not recommend it more highly. An astounding achievement in both the technical and narrative sides of film-making, Birdman is quite probably the best film of this year.