Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a director known for having sprawling stories that involve a number of different threads that, by the end of the film, have all become intertwined. His most notable works Babel, Biutiful, and 21 Grams have all garnered huge praise and Oscar attention, but to me they felt too unfocused and the payoff was never exactly worth it. Luckily, his new film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,) is a huge departure from his signature style, replacing the citywide or worldwide settings with a much more pinpointed story, and it results in one of the best films of the year.
Riggan is an actor who is only know for one role-Birdman. Michael Keaton, who plays Riggan, must certainly have had this movie written specifically for him or else it would not be as humorous since he is mostly known for his stint as Batman. Riggan is trying to make a Broadway play based on the short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver, and it is slowly beginning to mirror his life. He is haunted by the voice of Birdman, he has difficulty in maintaining Mike, the new supporting actor, his relationship with his daughter is strained, and he is desperate for the play to get his name back in the mainstream. This little summary doesn’t do justice in summing up the complexities the plot brings, but trust me in saying it’s very entertaining.
Across the board, all of the performances are sublime. Keaton, who hasn’t been the main star in a movie for six years, shines in a tragic and hilarious performance that is surely one of his best ever. In ways he is playing himself; a man who is once known for something tremendous only to have that glory fade with years. He is desperate to be loved and admired once more, maybe for something other than Birdman. The role that made him famous is always literally over his shoulder, encouraging him and taunting him at the same time. At times we see the actual Birdman and it feels bizarrely right in this world that Inarritu has created. Sometimes Keaton just starts using telekinesis or hovering off the ground and sometimes he even goes off and flies around the city. The movie is weird like that, and it is definitely going to be consider as one of the weirdest of the year.
Supporting him is a rather mix-bag of actors. His daughter, Sam, played by Emma Stone, has several really excellent scenes in the film. She is still bitter about how he abandoned her as a child and never spent time with her. In one scene she lets out all that bitterness and it is incredible. I don’t think I have ever seen her that vicious and destructive with her words in any movie, and it is shocking and powerful. Zack Galifianakis, who is definitely not known for his dramatic acting (he has never done anything serious) is exceptionally funny in the film. He plays Riggan’s lawyer and friend who is trying maintain Riggan’s sanity as well as helping keep the whole show afloat despite the fact that everything is collapsing left and right. Edward Norton is also obnoxiously fantastic as the top-notch actor who thinks his way of looking at acting and performance art is the right way. He comes in after a “mishap” occurs with another actor and quickly starts trying to take his performances, and the play, to the next level in order to steal the show. Norton is one of the biggest jerks you will see on screen this year, but he is just that good at doing it. Rounding out the cast in roles that don’t nearly take the spotlight but are nonetheless good are Naomi Watts as a newcomer to Broadway and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife.
Connecting all of these messed up and broken characters are beautifully shot long takes edited together in a mesmerizing way so as to make you think you are viewing one grand shot. It is a bit jarring at first, but once you get the feel for the direction Inarritu is taking you, it flows easily, and sometimes you never know where one shot ends and another begins. With no blatant cuts, the movie feels almost like Sokurov’s Russian Ark (the only film to be shot in one continuous take), and the camera pulls you through the turbulent lives of all who are involved with the making of this play. Props should really be going out to Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, and the editors, Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise for creating a hypnotic free flowing work of art.
The movie raises some questions that are begging to be answered: Do people really want to sit through a philosophical movie with a lot of talking? Or do they want to see explosions and aliens? These are two questions raised by the Birdman himself, and they linger with you throughout the movie because they are true. Do we as an audience care about art anymore? Have we become so inundated with explosives and fast-paced action sequences that we no longer care about the directors intent or message? It really is something to think about because are those who love big-budget blockbusters really going to see this movie?
In the end, Birdman is one of the weirdest movies you’ll see all year, but also one of the best. From its amazing long tracking shots, to the extraordinary performances, to its self-aware message about what we want out of movies and how we look at art, Birdman will leave you amazed and and wanting to go back to get even more out of it. Just be prepared for some ambiguities and some hard thinking about what appears on the screen. Innaritu has made his best movie to date, and it is not one to be missed, especially come Awards Season. Go check it out.