Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis
Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor, formerly famous for playing the superhero Birdman in a series of movies in the 1990’s. He is trying to reclaim artistic integrity by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway production of the Raymond Carver story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. However, he struggles against the pressure of success and a litany of other dramas including a troublesome cast and his former drug addict daughter.
Known for the dramatically powerful but intensely downbeat films 21 Grams and Babel, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarrito has taken a slight change for his hotly award tipped latest. Taking aim at the arrogance and ego’s of actors and the theatrical scene, Inarrito also takes on fame, social media and the fickle nature of audiences and the entertainment industry. Taking us behind the scenes of a new Broadway play, its star/director/writer taking his last shot on this final act of artistic integrity, Innarito has constructed a playful, impressive and captivating film.
The production of Birdman is hugely impressive. Charting the opening nights of a play, the film is ostensibly presented as one long two hour take. This brilliantly realised conceit, similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, works extremely well giving the film a stagelike quality, but with Emmanuel Lubezki’s glorious cinematography, exploding that stage outwards, making the film feel completely cinematic. This technique could be seen as a gimmick and could even take you out of the film, keeping it at a distance as you only looked at the surface shot trickery, but thankfully in this case it does the opposite, drawing you in and making you feel like you’re truly a part of the film. Lubezki’s camera sticks closely to the characters, framing their faces tightly, giving the viewer the same feeling and thrill of seeing drama performed in front of you live on stage, but also making the acting and drama seem so naturalistic, despite some magic realist touches. Despite the visual conceit, the film never once feels stagey, instead dragging you in to the claustrophobic confines of the theatre where the bomb of drama builds to blowing point through the few days up until the show’s opening night.
Dragging the audience so close in to the actors and their performances is a potentially risky proposition, and with the lack of any available editing to hide behind, a point that Inarrito himself has brought up in interviews, the action and drama is presented to us raw and up close. It strips the film back to its performances which plays to the films ultimate strength: the performances of the whole cast. Inarrito has assembled a great cast and teased out fantastic performances that are a complete pleasure to watch. Edward Norton is fun as the famous actor brought in at the final hour but who creates more trouble than he rectifies, Zack Galifianakis is reeled in as Riggan’s lawyer and friend, Emma Stone is wonderful as the damaged former addict daughter of Riggan who he is vaguely trying to reconnect with by keeping her close and Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts each get their own moments as the other two put upon players in the play’s cast. At the centre is Michael Keaton, throwing himself into the character of Riggan, a man desperately trying to keep it all together. Keaton seems a perfect and bold choice considering his former fame as Tim Burton’s Batman and his career decline since then, echoing that of Riggan’s, but it is soon clear that Keaton is not just stunt casting as he gives a performance that is bound to be sweeping up award nominations in the coming months.
Innarito’s film moves like a swinging jazz song, which is bolstered by the jazz soundtrack, as the camera sweeps around the corridors and backrooms of the theatre, picking out each scene as it unfolds. The film is darkly comic, raising more than a few chuckles. It sags a little at the beginning of the third act, but this is a minor quibble as you are swept along with the beat of the films tempo and the strength of its performances.
Birdman is a marvel of technical filmmaking and dramatic performance. It is clear to see why it is being talked up in the oncoming Oscar debate and it would not be a surprise to see it appear in the major categories.