“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
Whatever you think of Alejandro G Iñárritu’s Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance), it’s destined to be one of the year’s most talked things. Arriving in UK cinemas on New Year’s day, it could have played merry hell with most critics’ end-of-year lists if it had been released even a few hours earlier, but it’s bound to linger in the memory for the next 12 months.
In the film, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up movie star who has privately and publicly disintegrated since his infamous turn in the Birdman trilogy. Now, he’s trying to be a triple threat, by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
The production, which he has funded himself with the last of his superhero savings, is plagued by bad creative decisions, a world-beating run of terrible previews and the battling egos of Riggan himself and Mike Shiner, (Edward Norton) an impetuous method actor who’s been parachuted in. As Riggan’s mental state deteriorates even further, his telekinetic powers and Dark Knight-sounding alter-ego begin to manifest themselves once more.
It’s a testament to the experience of Birdman that it feels so original in spite of a number of obvious comparison points. On the surface alone, it sounds like nothing so much as Black Swan for middle-aged A-listers, and its surreal backstage machinations are often reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s film in practice too. Plus, the plot rehashes a number of the themes brought up in Pixar’s underrated Ratatouille, about the value of art that comes from an unexpected place, with Lindsay Duncan’s imperious New York Times critic standing in for Anton Ego.
In either case, the comparison is a compliment, but Birdman stands apart from them all on its own. This is due in no small part to the work of Chris Haarhoff, the Steadicam operator who shot the vast majority of the film in an apparently continuous take. It was actually shot in 10 minute takes and there are a couple of visible edits at the beginning and the end, but otherwise, just like a stage production, there’s not a cut to be seen. Seeing as how they don’t give Oscars for camera operators, Haarhoff is the unsung hero of the film.
The sheer persistence that must have gone into it is staggering. Even though the framing is sometimes limited, (there are incessant close-ups as the various other moving pieces get into place for the next tracking shot) the end result feels unique on a visual level. In short, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has come up with something to more than match the opening 17 minute shot from last year’s Oscar winner Gravity.
Combined with the frenetic jazz percussion score, the film is paced like a run-on sentence, but it flies along as a result. Weeks pass on screen in the two hours that you’re perched on the edge of your seat, tipped into the mayhem. It helps, of course, that there’s an absurdly witty script from Iñárritu and his co-writers, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, and a routinely superb ensemble led by Michael Keaton.
Keaton has hardly been AWOL over the course of the 20 years since he hung up the rubber Bat costume, so it’s tough to reconcile the comparisons with Riggan’s tragic grasping for blockbuster stardom. If anything, that makes his career-best performance here all the more impressive – it’s a fearless turn that must have resulted in many hours of junket interviews, fielding hacky questions about how this must be like his life story or something.
But he’s been rewarded with the role of a lifetime, almost like a version of himself from the darkest timeline imaginable, goatee and all. If he’d done Batman Forever in 1995, and then obsessed over that stardom for the last two decades, he still couldn’t be nearly as screwed up as Riggan.
The character lives in a world that is increasingly baffling to him, where movie stars are measured by the number of followers or retweets they have, rather than their box office opening weekends. As his wayward daughter Sam (Emma Stone) yells at him early on, without a Facebook account, he doesn’t even exist. Riggan takes that anonymity personally, struggling to silence his (super-powered) inner critic and constantly, as one character terms it, mistaking admiration for love.
Suffice to say, his mantelpiece should be heaving with Best Actor awards come February, and we’d expect some recognition for Edward Norton too. His Mike Shiner skews closer to gossip and scuttlebutt about Norton’s own reputation, particularly in the wake of his parting of the ways with Marvel Studios.
Mike takes method acting to sociopathic levels, but aside from stealing most of the scenes in which he features, (the line “Play with my balls” brings the house down) Norton also brings pathos to a character who strives for reality on stage but flounders once he’s out of the spotlight.
But Emma Stone, who filmed her role during a production break on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, threatens to steal the whole show. Her Sam bubbles with resentment as she traipses between rows with a self-absorbed Riggan and verbal jousting/flirting with Mike. Stone is one of the best young actresses out there and if her previous performances haven’t quite done it yet, her work here ought to propel her into the A-list like a rocket.
On the whole, there are loads of actors doing some of their very best work here, including superb support from Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s co-stars. Although he may have had funnier roles, Zach Galifianakis has never been better than he is long-suffering agent/attorney Brandon, playing well as the exasperated straightman to the madness that ensues.
The script must have been nailed down from the beginning in order to make the complex structure work and if there’s a downside, that could be it. Either nobody noticed or nobody cared that a couple of early sub-plots fell by the wayside, especially concerning Watts’ and Riseborough’s characters, and that’s disappointing. However, the film succeeds so completely in studying Riggan that for better or worse, certain other characters are merely satellites around his imploding ego.
Birdman is principally a film about conquering your inner critic, even if that means making a virtue of ignorance in order to take a real creative risk. Even though it’s now touted as a major Oscar contender, the film itself comes with no small amount of risk, in taking the route of most resistance with its astonishing cinematography, but it has paid off magnificently.
What makes the film curiously difficult to fully appreciate in writing, as Riggan’s dressing room mirror reassures him, is that “a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” We can describe the funniest moments, or the moving bits, or the joyous final shot (and how brilliantly a certain actress sells it) but nothing we can say about it would be the thing itself. It is what it is, and for whatever it’s worth, we say it’s hilarious, moving and an utterly singular cinematic experience.
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