Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts.
Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) attempts to distance himself from his famous role as the superhero, Birdman by staging a Broadway play adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love‘. In the days leading to the premier, Riggan must overcome his ego and family troubles to ensure he can once again hit the big time.
There’s a scene in Birdman where Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomas, confronts the theatre critic who threatens to shut down his play with a single review, without even seeing it. It’s one of the films best scenes – in a film where it’s difficult to choose just one – as Keaton describes her writing as full of labels and adjectives, with nothing about technique, structure or execution, reducing his life’s ambition down to a quarter page in the arts section with absolutely no remorse.
It ends with him smashing glass and storming out of the bar, while the critic just sits there as if nothing happened – she was always going to write a bad review and that outburst certainly didn’t help.
It’s the one scene that will certainly stick with me, sat in the theatre, feeling as though Keaton’s character was actually shouting at me, hiding in my jacket out of embarrassment.
But, rest assured, Birdman is certainly not a bad film, and I have nothing against anyone involved. And while countless critics have touted this as one of the year’s best films, with Oscar attention a possibility for pretty much the entire cast – and undoubtedly for the score, cinematography and direction.
Impeccably directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, known for Oscar baiting dramas like Babel, Biutiful and 21 Grams, he’s made his least awards friendly movie yet in Birdman. But it’s certainly the one he’ll be remembered for, commenting on the current craze of superheroes, as well the state of the entertainment industry as a whole in a lean, fast paced two hours.
Like last year’s Gravity (coincidentally shot by the same cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki), Birdman has become notable for its use of the ‘long take’. But, unlike Gravity, Birdman’s long take is pretty much the entire film.
Technically impressive, it’ll be all too easy to sit down with the Blu-ray when it’s released to look for the cuts – because they’re there, this isn’t Russian Ark – but Birdman is an experience that needs to be seen in the theatre. It welcomes you with open arms, wraps you up in it’s luxurious blanket and takes you on an adventure. Suddenly, fifteen minutes in, you don’t even notice the camera is swooping from room to room with one smooth movement, as if you’re a fly on the wall, just watching life go by.
Would Birdman be as good a film without this technique? Probably not. But it’s not just the photography that immerses you. The score, mostly percussion and composed by Antonio Sanchez, is free form jazz. Improvised a week before filming and then finalised over the final cut, it sets the literal comic timing and finds the rhythm of the film, complementing the action on screen. You’re hooked from the opening credits and you’re smiling to yourself when the camera occasionally pans past the lone drummer, providing the soundtrack to Keaton making his way stage left. It’s so impressive, that I wish my life was punctuated with hi-hats and bass drums.
But where Birdman excels most is in the performances. Long takes, as impressive as they are, demand a lot from the actors, and every single one of them, from the guy that swivels in his chair, checking the monitors at the side of the stage, to Michael Keaton as Riggan himself, is under pressure to simply not mess it up. This leads to some amazing line deliveries and opportunities for humour that probably weren’t there until the cameras were rolling. Check out Zach Galifianakis, playing it absolutely straight as Riggan’s manager / attorney, who fluffs a couple of lines in some scenes – any other film, we’d be straight out of it, but because of Zach’s character – a paranoid, attentive assistant, who’s always under pressure to clean up Riggan’s messes, it’s completely expected that he’d mess up a couple of times, rushing to get the words out of his mouth in order to fix a problem and move onto the next one. Also of note is Emma Stone, recently seen in The Amazing Spiderman 2, her role as Riggan’s daughter cum personal assistant, is everything that we knew she could be since she reigned supreme in Easy A back in 2010. Playing the reluctant daughter, who really only wants to see her father be happy, she’s mean, cruel, dark, and in one amazing monologue, brutally honest. Sure to get at least some recognition from the Academy, it’s far and away the best thing she’s ever done.
Supported by the likes of Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, alongside an all too brief appearance from Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex wife, the cast play it pitch perfect. The rigorous filming schedule and the pressure to hit all those cues on time obviously got to them, helping them find their characters and create a cast that work perfectly together.
Still, it’s Keaton that arguably reigns supreme over this film. His first lead role since his directorial effort The Merry Gentlemen back in 2008 (which I haven’t seen….) it nicely tops off a number of support roles and cameos that have brought him back into our minds. Because no one really went to see RoboCop or Need for Speed for their respective leads, right?
As Riggan, the obvious thing to comment on would be his own history as a major superhero, whose recent reboots and configurations – while not totally doing away with his own interpretation – have maybe diluted his efforts. Certainly, the film doesn’t shy away from self parody or self awareness – commenting on Robert Downey Jr, Fassbender and Jeremy Renner as actors who have arguably forgone their dignity for fame and fortune – but it’s never overshadows the actual drama. You don’t see him as Keaton overcoming his Batman persona, right now he couldn’t care less, you see Riggan overcoming Birdman or at least attempting to, before accepting his own fate. It’s the role Keaton has being patiently waiting for all these years, and he gives it everything he has.
And yet, despite all of this pitch perfect casting and Oscar talk, I think it’s highly unlikely that Birdman will win any of the big gongs in February. Not because it doesn’t deserve them, but because this isn’t your usual awards frontrunner.
It’s a film that will stand the test of time, however, destined to become one of the great Oscar Injustices, alongside Raging Bull back in 1980 or L.A. Confidential, that lost to Titanic back in 1997. Certainly one of the most technically impressive and fun films of the year, Birdman elevates itself above everything else by being truly, completely original.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
You can listen to the Flickering Myth Podcast review of Birdman using the player below: