Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a brilliant balancing act between theater and reality. The film is the latest from acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, best known for his challenging works like 21 Grams and Babel. Here, he brings together a masterful mix of competing ideas surrounding actors and their egos, the compulsive need for infusing on-stage work with reality, and the desperation of an older actor to achieve the proper fame he has always wanted. The result is a masterpiece about acting with a superb, endlessly riveting performance from Michael Keaton. It’s a reminder of the talent that has been underneath some of his lesser work that he’s done over the past decade to make money, and stands as a clearly personal work considering how close his character Riggan’s career aligns with his own. Add in the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar last year for Gravity), who comprises the film to appear as a long continuous take, and the film becomes a magnetic, vibrant, and wholly inventive look at acting culture.
Riggan Thomson is an actor in his 50s looking for a way to revitalize his career. His superhero franchise Birdman stormed the box office twenty years ago and made him a star, but he turned down a fourth film in the franchise in hopes of finding truth in his work. Now, he is tormented by his past and wants to make a work that challenges him, so he makes it about love and aims for the best Broadway cast he can get. His venture into theater is a challenge, and his actors do not make his life easy: Laura (Andrea Riseborough) plays a love interest that is also having a relationship with Riggan off-stage, while Lesley (Naomi Watts) plays a woman that has an off-stage relationship with another actor, Mike (Edward Norton). Mike and Riggan butt heads because, let’s face it, two strong personalities with distinct visions for the play won’t mesh. Riggan’s director and personal friend, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), thinks it’s the best move for the play. This makes Riggan’s life even more stressful, considering he is coping with his daughter Sam’s (Emma Stone) recent suicide attempt.
Everything is about Riggan. That’s defined his life for better and for worse. Mostly worse. His personal life is in shambles, his play is setting up to be a failure, and his past never lets up. Keaton brings a remarkable gravitas to every frame, having us walk around in his life and understand what makes him tick. The cinematography allows the film to work in those compulsively magnetic ways: the personable tracking shots that follow characters down corridors and around corners; the wide lens looks at the stage as they move into close-ups on a particular person; and the natural ability for the audience to examine a frame as the camera does not switch shots. This makes the film a special breed, combining the elements that make long, continuous takes so watchable (the spontaneity of the moment and the organic feel of the action) with the unpredictability of shot changing as the camera goes black and a new, longer take emerges. And the performances that emerge from that ingenuity are remarkable. Norton has always been a great character actor, and here he provides the best performance of his career as an arrogant, aggressive man that never knows when to stop acting and start living. His supporting performance could win him an Oscar, much like Keaton.
The other supporting performances, particularly from Stone, manage to shine through the Riggan-centered material. And Iñárritu’s film doesn’t just rely on transformative performances or seemingly gimmicky camera work to provide a punch. The commentary is stout and aware, attacking everyone from film turned stage actors to critics themselves. There’s a brilliant showdown between a playwright critic, who tells Riggan that she will destroy his work because she hates everything he stands for, and Riggan himself, who believes that critics like her don’t deserve to comment on their work and provide nothing to the world. It’s cold, biting, and vicious, infusing the film with even more life. The scenes that balance between theater and reality work even stronger, whether that involves a standard conversation between Riggan and Mike or Riggan himself getting lost outside in his underwear before wandering onto his own stage during a show. Iñárritu himself has discussed how much he despises superhero films, and that much is evident. But what strikes me as so remarkable and unforgettable about the film is its mixture of innovative presentation, impeccable acting, and a focused, auteur vision. Birdman is extraordinarily entertaining, and a massive achievement in filmmaking.
Grade: ★★★★★ (out of 5)