This week was a crossroads of sorts for me.
With two days left of Octoberween, I had to make an important decision as to whether I was going to write one last article on cheesy Halloween goodness, or whether to take those first bold steps into the uncharted territory of the 2014 prestige film season It was a tough call, I yell ya.
Luckily, Birdman made the plunge into prestige season as good as it can get.
The plot: In the 80s and 90s, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) became world-famous for his portrayal of the superhero Birdman (alas not the Hanna-Barbera attorney-at-law). Now 60, Riggan is a washed-up, mentally fragile pop culture curiosity hoping to reclaim some respect by directing and starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But between his distant, recovering drug addict daughter/ personal assistant Sam (Emma Stone), the erratic behavior of gifted actor and total asshat Mike (Edward Norton), the pressures of producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), and the potential pregnancy of his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Risenborough), the play and Riggan’s personal life are threatening to fall apart. As Riggan strives to earn some critical respect and piece his life together, his Birdman persona continues to haunt him—literally. With the voice of Birdman telling Riggan to accept his lot as aging action star and his play becoming more bleakly comical with every preview, Riggan is hoping he can get through with his career and sanity safely intact.
A lot of hype already surrounds this movie, hype that I’ve made my best attempt at avoiding in order to give the fairest review I could. The one kernel of hype that’s been impossible to avoid has surrounded Keaton’s exceptional performance. And exceptional it is. As the film opens, Riggan is already a flawed and emotionally frayed actor having hallucinatory conversations with his most famous role, and his mental state only gets worse from there. Keaton’s famous nervous energy if utilized to great effect in Birdman and adds tremendous depth to the role. Riggan tries to cloak his crippling self-doubt with ego and artistic earnestness to limited success, particularly as his production and family life go further and further off the rails. There’s a powerful wild-eyed mania to Riggan’s meltdowns that is magnetic and incredibly sad; but at least for me, Keaton’s best performances are in his quieter moments, particularly in his reactions to the events happening around him. Keaton portrays incredible mental anguish with subtlety and truly earns his Oscar clip breakdowns as a result. Keaton’s Birdman persona is equally strong, his growling, snarly voice—much closer to Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach or Christian Bale’s Batman than Keaton’s own version of the Dark Knight Detective—is a menacing presence well before he physically shows up in the surreal third act. Casting Keaton as an aging superhero actor trying to reconfigure his career is an obvious choice, but Keaton never rests on the laurels of real-world similarities and instead plays the role to the hilt, playing Riggan and Birdman as dangerous funhouse mirror versions of himself and the Bat.
Keaton’s is not the only excellent performance in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (yes, that’s the full title), and Riggan’s is not the only story Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu tells. Most of the supporting cast is incredibly rounded and full, providing insight into them and to Riggan. A subjective camera follows characters through the narrow halls of the theater and, as a result, the viewers gets a sense of them both in relation to and separate from Keaton. Particularly strong are Stone and Norton’s performances. Norton’s character is astoundingly reprehensible throughout the film, being drunk and disorderly onstage, spouting hollow and pretentious sound bites on philosophy and acting craft, and attempting to actually have sex with co-star and partner Leslie (Naomi Watts) during a love scene on stage. Whereas weaker material would be content with Mike as a caricature of self-obsessed Broadway actors, the camera lingers with him and humanizes him, and ultimately revealing him as a foil for Riggan. Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan’s resentful daughter, is equally deep. On edge after rehab and angry her father was away for so much of her youth, the angst she feels seems valid, even as she begins to work through it in the film’s second half. Her strongest moment comes, like Keaton, in her quieter moments. After angrily tearing into her father, the camera holds on her as she realizes the consequences of her words in real time. It’s an excellent performance, and easily one of Stone’s best.
It’s the dynamic performances of the three principal actors that reveal the shortcomings of some of the other characters. No one in this film gives a bad performance (aside from the character who’s whole deal is being a bad actor, which he portrays really well), but it’s clear that some characters are cast to the side in favor of Riggan, Sam, and Mike. The two actresses in Riggan’s play both have arcs that feel incomplete. Watts’ Lesley deals with tremendous stress, especially from her unpredictable partner Mike, but frequently the film is more interested in telling his story than hers. Similarly, Andrea Risenborough’s character feels half-written. Halfway through the film it’s revealed that spoiler she’s not actually pregnant, and she more or less disappears to the background after that. It feels like the writers didn’t know where to take her character and decided that nowhere was good enough. A scene in which she tries to kiss Lesley is never given any context or followed up in any way, and as a result feels more like a cheap bisexual actress gag than a character informing moment. Zach Galifianakis, for his limited screen time, gives a good dramatic performance, and hopefully will earn him some more dramatic roles from the indie crowd.
Outside of its excellent performances, Birdman’s greatest accomplishment is its cinematography. Shot by Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the camera is nearly always moving as it follows characters and examines them from different angles. Seamless editing makes much of the film feel like long, continuous takes, a feat made more impressive when the film jumps hours ahead while moving down a hallway. The cinematography sets the beats of the film nearly as much as the solo drum fills that make up the majority of the soundtrack, keeping the film moving by keeping the camera moving and stopping the camera for eerie long shots when tensions needs to be built, including some nice stylistic references to moving through the hallways of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (note the carpet design in the hallways). As Riggan uncouples from reality, so does the cinematography, Riggan’s hallucinations culminating in a big budget, city block leveling fight straight out of The Avengers. Lubezki and Iñárritu use superhero imagery to excellent affect, framing Riggan with superhero movie posters real and imagined, and populating the streets of Broadway with the necessary guys in cheap Spider-Man and Iron Man costumes during a scene in which an underwear-clad Riggan walks through 42nd street in a nightmarish actualization of the classic “went to school naked” dream.
Birdman is as black a comedy as I’ve seen in quite a while, and I spent a semester this year watching every Coen film. The dialogue is sharp to the point of drawing blood and dramatic tensions are mercifully broken with bits of razor dialogue. In a lot of ways, this film reminded me of the aforementioned Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. Both present the viewer with a man falling to pieces in frequently surreal real time, Iñarritu’s Raymond Carver character meeting perhaps a better fate than the Coens’ 60s suburbia Job stand-in. If watching characters lives go from bad to worse on screen isn’t your thing, you probably want to sit this one out. But if you’ve got a taste for bleak, well-acted humor, this is the film for you. With great, (mostly) multifaceted performances and some truly exceptional cinematography, Birdman sets the bar high for the 2014 prestige season.
Full Disclosure: I was an intern with Worldview Entertainment, the production company that financed the film, in the spring of 2013, just as Birdman began filming. During my time there, I didn’t work on the set or on this film in any other capacity. I haven’t worked with Worldview since April 2013, and my thoughts on the film are independent from my experiences there. I just wanted to provide some transparency. With ethics in pop culture journalism being a hot topic right now, I’d hate for anyone to think of my reviews here as being in any way unethical.