When we first meet Riggan Thomson, the lead character of Birdman, we see him contemplating his life decisions, wearing nothing but briefs, as if to expose his deepest insecurities, but floating by some psychic power. Is it really happening, or is it all hallucination. Is it the battle of expectations vs. reality, and merely living fantasy?
In this single image, the perplexing tone is immediately set for Birdman, the latest feature from director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu. A step outside of Innaritu’s usual directorial style, which include films such as Babel and Biutiful, the film played in major festivals and circuits around the world, and has been universally praised as one of the best films of the year.
My answer to that: They’re absolutely right. In a year that has been overloaded by sequels and reboots. Birdman stands comfortably among the most wholly originally films of the year, and a career defining moment for much of its cast and crew, a marriage of perfect craftsmanship and thematic density.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a former action star long past his prime, best known for portraying an iconic superhero, but now having lost much credibility in the years since. In an effort to gain back credibility, and save his career as well, he attempts to direct and star in a play adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, a source material very personal to Riggan. However, production issues frequently cause the play to hit a snag, but Riggan continuously pulls out all the stops to save the play for his own sake, even if it may cost him his sanity and well-being in the process.
From head to toe, Birdman is very much a director’s movie, carrying Innaritu’s fingerprints everywhere. The film is shot and edited with a very documentarian and semi-autobiographical approach, with the film cleverly edited to appear as if it were one continuous take, following Riggan in his behind the scenes exploits to fine-tune the play for opening night, and cataloguing the frustrations and conflicts with the cast and crew as the show reaches its deadline. This documentary approach is further enhanced by a percussion heavy score by Antonio Sanchez, which works itself into the background like a musician tuning his instruments before a big show. DP Emanuel Lubezki photographs the film with a keen attention to detail, in several instances using mirrors to provide a metaphor on disconnect in emotion and discussion. It’s also to the credit of editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione that the film’s seamless camera trickeries are pulled off so well, and that the film essentially breezes by, never getting boring, and never getting repetitious.
At the center of the film is a revolutionary and career best turn from Michael Keaton, himself iconic for his turns in the Tim Burton Batman films, and tackling the role with striking vulnerability and intensity. Riggan frequently suffers from schizophrenic episodes, casting doubt on his ability to do the play justice, and Keaton establishes a man so worn down and jaded from past experiences, desperate to regain the good will and attention he worked so hard to earn, and works the character into a powerful portrait of the mundane motions of life tempting you from moving on to new directions, for they may be safer and a better living, but ultimately less passionate and fulfilling. For my money, Keaton’s performance is going to remain one of the year’s best, and should make him the frontrunner for the Best Lead Actor Oscar.
Keaton also has to walk a tricky line interacting with a huge supporting cast, surrounded by dear friends and colleagues that he, oddly enough, couldn’t feel any more distant from. Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a method actor enlisted to co-star in his play, frequently stealing attention away from Riggan (In a real world parallel of most new talent taking away attention from more legendary stars), and proves to be a nightmare to work alongside. Norton himself is known to be quite difficult to work with, a perfectionist, who frequently puts his heavy input on projects he is involved with, and it’s great to see him here, surprisingly poking fun at his own persona from time to time, but still not taking the audience out of the experience of the film.
Also proving a struggle for Riggan to get a grasp on is his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), recently released from rehab, and working as his assistant. Through Sam, we see a very inventive reversal to the arc Riggan endures. Sam starts off unbelievably insecure, just as desperate for attention and care as Riggan, and constantly feels the need to function on adrenaline. But whereas Riggan works from dealing with his demons internally to lashing out immaturely, we see Sam start off as outwardly bitter and resentful, and growing mellow by the end of the film. In a theme also tying in the influence and stretch of social media, Riggan looks at these advancements with cynicism, while Sam embraces the massive potential they possess. It’s a stunning portrayal of insecurities passed down to generations and ultimate catharsis, and Emma Stone is the best she’s ever been in this film.
Birdman is a thematically heavy film, in addition to the aforementioned motifs of social media, lack of connection to other people, and the need for self-preservation, it also serves as a complex psychological study. Birdman exists in a world built on hyper-realism, blending surreal imagery with reality that merges the gravity of the stage with the fantastical escapism of cinema. It all creates a very unique, occasionally dreamlike mood that carries the air of both hope and depression in equal measure. The film’s realization of the lengths that one will go for their craft is powerful as well, the stage that Riggan inhabits feeling like the only solace in the world, despite just how agonizing and deadly these actions may ultimately prove to be, and what scars they leave behind. The film takes the phrase “Give the people what they love” to alarming new heights.
It’s these fresh and potent concepts that make Birdman truly shine, and I could spend so much time elaborating on the clever intricacies of the film, and possibly discover more that I didn’t even notice on the first viewing. To call Birdman one of the best films of the year does it no justice. It’s one of the most thoroughly ambitious films of the last couple decades. Anchored by the direction of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, as well as Michael Keaton’s tremendous lead performance, it’s an outstanding achievement, a singular work of art, and, for lack of a better word… flawless.
It very well could be the best film I’ve seen this year.
***** / *****