The best way to depict Birdman through words is to write a sentence like this that has no punctuation or sign of a conclusion whatsoever and it just continues to roll on and on and on to the point where you’re convinced that you’ve missed something along the way and that this cannot be possible for such a long period of time and surely the quality of the story being told would be compromised by such a remarkable focus on having the entire film appear to be one shot.
That is, in essence, Birdman. Granted, the film is far more eloquent, extended and controlled than the previous paragraph, but what I’m trying to convey (however hopelessly) is the sense of wonder and amazement at how a film can (for the most part) appear to be one continuous tracking shot. Indeed, it makes Alfonso Cuaron’s 17 minute opening shot in ‘Gravity’ seem like child’s play compared to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s directorial efforts here.
However, arguably more impressive than the remarkable effort behind the camera is the story that unfolds in front of it, one that’s likely to engross audiences from start to finish. Not once did I feel that it was dragging along, which is truly commendable given the aforementioned shooting style. Indeed, when one opts for this style of filming they must understand that any deficiencies in the film’s plotline will likely be discovered, as there’s little space to hide when one shot appears (there are noticeable transitions but none glaringly obvious) to last for just over 1 hour and 43 minutes. Fortunately, the story of washed up actor Riggan Thompson (played with profound range by Michael Keaton) trying to piece his career back together is truly enthralling, and eerily relevant to the actor performing this role, as Michael Keaton’s stint in the bat-suit for ‘Batman Returns’ was released in 1992… the same year that, in the film, the last ‘Birdman’ film was released.
While this is an aspect of the character that Keaton should find easy to convey and relate to, there are dimensions to Thompson that are anything but easy to depict, and Keaton perfectly conveys the desperation of Thompson to rekindle both family and career, while also struggling with the inner demons that lurk within the dark recesses of his mind, demons that continue to gnaw away at the composure of Thompson.
Don’t be fooled, this is not an unrelentingly dark story. In fact, one of the most intriguing dichotomies of the film is that, despite being constructed to seem like a continuos shot, its genre is constantly shifting, hybrid-like in its combination of drama, comedy, and even action fantasy at times, though the realism of these fantastical moments will continue to prove a topic of impassioned debate, its relevance extending right to the final scene, of which I’ll say no more.
While easy to be carried away by Keaton’s masterful return to the big screen, it’s important to acknowledge the efforts of his supporting cast, all of whom fail to miss a beat with the material they’re given. Indeed, the notion of an actor playing a caricature of himself in this film is furthered by Edward Norton’s character of Mike Shiner, who is notoriously difficult to work with on set, eerily similar to past stories about Norton’s questionable conduct during his filming stints. Regardless of his on set antics, Norton turns in his best performance in years, one that will hopefully mark a return to form for him, the same of which can be said of Keaton, with his recent foray into the world of film one that will hopefully become an extended stay.
Besides these two, Emma Stone does well with the material she’s given (although I do think her recent Oscar nomination was slightly excessive), Zach Galifianakis is startlingly subdued (not in any way an indictment), and Naomi Watts is more than serviceable in her short stints on screen.
While this is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2014, and possibly my favourite of that year, there are flaws that warrant mention. A few of the characters (namely Norton’s and Watts’) aren’t provided with a full character arc by the end of the film, with their characters progressively fading out, particularly during the final stretch. Furthermore, there are signs of multiple ending syndrome within the last 15 minutes, and there’s a moment in particular that I would’ve loved to see the film end on (it takes place in the final moment of the ‘one shot’), though I do understand the significance of the exchanges that take place afterwards.
Overall, ‘Birdman’ is an incredible piece of work, and its 119 minutes will fly by (no pun intended). Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give Inarritu and his crew is that they have crafted a film that is, above all else, an EXPERIENCE, something that forswears the cliches of big-budget action and superhero films (which in fairness do have their own appeal) in the pursuit of making audiences feel like they’re watching something truly unique, and in this regard it passes with flying colours.
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Stars: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis
Originally published on davidzita.net on 10th February, 2015