Once the film Award season kicks into full gear, I tend to become overly-protective of the films I’ve loved so far and grow skeptical of any newcomer that might snatch awards from “my” more “deserving” favorites. I resisted even watching Birdman because I didn’t want to support a film that might take the Best Picture Oscar away from Whiplash, or the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards away from The Imitation Game‘s Benedict Cumberbatch and Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons. Last year I found myself rooting against 12 Years A Slave and its seemingly inevitable triumph at the Oscars. This year’s resistance translated into complete avoidance and I knew little about “that movie with the old Batman” which had its wide release back in October. Now this story becomes predictable. I eventually succumbed to the rising hype and watched Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. And from start to finish, I absolutely adored the film.
There is little chance I can heap any new praises on the film which has been met with near-universal acclaim. The film focuses on washed-up movie star who writes, directs and stars in a Broadway production to reinvigorate the film. Creatively speaking the film is a rare gem that takes style seriously and actually uses the medium to help tell the story. The highly praised depiction of the majority of the film as one continuous take was all the rage among the giddy audience members leaving my theater, an unusual topic of conversation even in indie-film houses. This stylistic choice requires technical skills to execute but is not done for pure self-promotion. As the audience spins seamlessly from one scene to the next the sense of chaos swirling around the characters builds and the pressure on them intensifies, especially for Keaton’s Riggan Thomson. Unlike the long takes of Taxi Driver whose camera cautiously follows the troubled Travis Bickle and shies away from him in his awkward moments, the camera in Birdman freely moves between characters and throughout the Broadway theater in which Riggan’s play and Birdman‘s story take place. We follow Keaton for a time then break away to check on Norton and Emma Stone, continuing from one character’s melt-down to another’s euphoria and back again. Late in the film, the in-film play finishes and the camera pauses and stares down an empty hall so it can hear the crowd’s applause wafting through the old theater walls.
At times the continuous take allows the film to feel like the play it records with characters entering and exiting the frame at a brisk pace. Very early in the film Riggan sits alone in his dressing room and chastises himself before the camera floats to his right and reveals a group of critics rifling off questions. Once all three critics are revealed, the camera pans left again and reveals the beleaguered Keaton sitting in a previously-absent chair and attempting to keep pace with the fast-talking writers. In other moments the camerawork deftly reminds us of how engaged the actors are in their performances. Late in the film Edward Norton, portraying the outlandish and unfiltered actor Mike Shiner, steps onto the theater roof for a cigarette and finds Riggan’s daughter Sam, portrayed by Emma Stone, sitting nonchalantly at the roof’s edge. Since we just followed Norton exit another scene, the camera floats behind him and watches Stone in the distance on the left side of the screen with Norton occupying the frame’s opposite half. We follow him as approaches Stone and takes a seat near her on the ledge. Now Norton’s left-side is in profile on our right and Stone’s right is on our left as she looks out into the street (please note that the above picture is from this scene or a similar one later in the film). As the two talk the camera slowly rotates until it floats immediately between the two. If the actors maintained their original positions the camera would look at Norton head-on and we would see Stone’s less-interesting back (no offense). But as the camera moves the two actors shift in unison to face each other. This way we still see Norton’s front and Stone’s back but we see the same profiles that we watched a moment before. While the two shift they also inch closer to each other allowing the camera to press inwards while still keeping them in frame. Initially the two don’t look in the same direction, Norton peers back at the theater while Stone looks down at pedestrians. Their positions mirror their on-screen conversation in which Norton comments on their age gap and why a relationship would never work between them. But all the while the two lean closer together and the camera presses in, entranced by the two strange characters haunted by their own demons.
In order to execute such a technically demanding film, González Iñárritu calls upon an outstanding cast. The performances by Keaton, Norton and Stone are all in the conversation for Oscar nominations. Each actor’s performance fits into their own personal stories a little differently. Keaton is mounting an enormous career comeback. Stone’s work reinforces her ability to tackle a dramatic role and deliver a memorable performance with limited screen time. And Norton gives his best performance probably since 2006’s The Illusionist. What is great about Birdman is the time it takes to develop each character’s motivations, even if it only needs a moment to do so. While The Imitation Game and Whiplash devote themselves to one or two people, Birdman is the film of almost a dozen. Each character struggles with their own conflicts. Riggan confuses “admiration with love” leading to strain in relationships with his ex-wife, his daughter, and his girlfriend Laura played by Andrea Riseborough. Norton plays the consummate method actor who loses his sense of self when not on stage, much like Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder but in a more real and therefore more haunting way. Stone’s Sam Thomson struggles to cope with life out of rehab and tries to find purpose and perspective in life. Her performance goes beyond the typical portrayal of a disenfranchised youth who confuses digital experiences with real ones.
Birdman‘s harsh stance on both Broadway culture and Comic films is pointed and not overwrought which is what I came to expect with some of the criticism I’ve read. In the final scenes of the film Amy Ryan chastises Zach Galifianakis (yes, these two are both in the film but everyone else’s work is so fantastic they come up here as basically a footnote) for his cheeriness following a tragedy in the film. Galifinakis responds to her scolding with “Am I happy? I’m euphoric!” highlighting the comically misaligned priorities his character and others in the film share. The film is filled with tongue-in-cheek and self-referential dark humor including Norton’s character who finds himself literally unable to perform when not performing on stage. Black comedy is rarely so well-executed. Neither is the cinematography achieved in the film or the performances by everyone involved from Keaton and Norton to Galifinakis and Naomi Watts (yes she’s here as well, pairing with González Iñárritu after their collaboration on 21 Grams). Birdman may be one of the most ambitious films of the year along with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and accomplishes all that it sets out to achieve. Leaving the theater, I felt like a stubborn old man filled with regret, wishing I had seen the film sooner and not made bold declarations so early.
Bottom line: One of the most creative and enjoyable films in recent years Birdman surprised me if only because of my stubbornly self-imposed naivety. Sadly the declaration that Whiplash is the best film of the year may have been a premature announcement but the fact that there is another film as memorable is a reason to celebrate. Now that I’m done protecting my favorite films and performances from Birdman, I’m ready to protect Birdman from any other films as I continue my childish and ineffectual hording.
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