Often the films that are not entirely successful end up being the most interesting, especially when they are attempting something new. BIRDMAN is one such creature, an ambitious and sometimes jarring exploration of the id and the ego filmed as an illusion of a single continuous take. I think I enjoyed it, but I get the sense it’s going to be a film that I may reassess for better or worse on repeat viewings.
Two decades ago Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) hung up the wings of Birdman, a hugely popular movie superhero, in order to pursue more respectable acting fare. Now well into middle age, Riggan attempts to adapt, direct and star in an ambitious play on Broadway, all the while being frustrated by accidents, the clashing personalities of those around him and being belittled by his own tortured psyche which has manifested as the voice of Birdman himself.
A few things I do know for certain – the performances in Birdman are stellar, the visuals are equally beautiful and dumfounding, and I highly doubt that I’ll ever fully understand the thing as a whole. I usually love films that play with the audience’s concept of reality, that’s why two of my favourite directors are Spike Jonze and Darren Aronofsky. Birdman takes this twist of perception to the extreme – you’re never sure how much you’re witnessing is in Riggan’s head, or how weird this world actually is. It’s pretty much left to your own interpretation whether Riggan just suffers a severe crack in his psyche (my personal view) or whether he’s a seriously disturbed man with actual superpowers. We witness him doing impossible things, but we could very have been tricked as an audience in exactly what we’re seeing here, since Riggan is usually on his own and of a volatile state of mind when he appears to levitate or move objects with his mind.
The disguised editing used in the film (the main gimmick critics have picked up on) keeps our concept of time and place fluid, as one scene seamlessly blends into another. GRAVITY’s Emmanuel Lubezki proves once again to be a master of digital manipulation of the image. It’s an aesthetic that takes some getting used to, but after a while you hardly notice, as you’re utterly enthralled by this black, twisted world of delusion and self-destruction. It’s very clever when we see Riggan going round a corner and all of a sudden it’s later that afternoon, a little less clever when they resort to a time lapse of the sky, because that’s cheating. I can understand why director Alejandro G. Iñárritu wanted to attempt it, and it’s an undeniably impressive artistic feat, but I can’t say it’s an essential part of the film’s makeup, for that you’ve got to look to the performances and the screenplay.
Keaton hasn’t been this fine in years. His casting was clearly very well-calculated, all the meta BATMAN stuff (“I haven’t been Birdman since 1992”) adds colour and a satirical edge to proceedings. Riggan is never remotely likeable as a character, but he’s a fascinating, self-obsessed, nutty oddball, and his scenes ego-sparring with consummate method professional/awful human being Mike Shiner (Edward Norton playing a parody of himself) and bickering with his alienated, recently out of rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) crackle with energy and honesty. Riggan takes it well on the surface when people question his talent for the art, but as soon as he’s on his own he becomes an animalistic, narcissistic jerk utterly consumed by his warped self-image. His jerky Times Square exposure is on of the funniest, most terrifying set pieces in years, but you never feel like Riggan doesn’t deserve everything he gets. Mike and Sam both have character flaws as well, but you tend to have a bit more sympathy for their personal and professional predicaments, largely due to the clever choices Norton and Stone make in their performances. Zach Galifianakis is almost unrecognisable as Riggan’s permanently on-edge lawyer, and also good is Amy Ryan as Riggan’s frustrated but still caring ex-wife. If there are weaknesses in the ensemble they are Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough, but more because of the thankless roles the script gave them than any faults of the actors’ own.
No aspect of the entertainment industry gets off lightly in Iñárritu’s razor-sharp script co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. Birdman mercilessly attacks the obscene excess of blockbuster filmmaking, the colossal egos of movie stars and celebrities, the ridiculousness of movie stars becoming theatre actors and the hypocrisy behind arts criticism at one point or another. The venom with which Keaton as Riggan lays into a TV news item about Robert Downey Jr does make you wonder what he really thinks about superhero movies today compared to their equivalent in the 1990s.
While I have enjoyed other, films far more this year, I can’t fault Birdman’s almost universally masterful performances or its technical and artistic aspirations. It may well be one for the ages, or it may not. Basically, you just have to see this one for yourself. Go, then, watch and make up your own mind – is Birdman the height of arty dramedy pretentiousness or a completely unique expression of genius? You decide. SSP