At the moment the only words I can pull are adjectives. Crazy. Exciting. Enthralling. Riveting. Unsettling. Admittedly, they all more or less mean the same thing. In an age where capes and cowls are being handed out in Hollywood faster than promotions in Leicester Square, no film is more relevant than Birdman, the latest from visionary director, Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Twelve hours after finally seeing the film, a picture I have ached for since it captivated crowds at the Venice International Film Festival in August, I’m not really sure where to begin. I guess a sort of natural starting point would be with the film’s optical illusion, orchestrated by Ińárritu and cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki, that has created so much buzz as the film approaches awards season.
Like past films, such as Hitchcock’s Rope and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, Birdman takes on the challenge of creating the illusion that the film was filmed in one continuous shot, with the exception of one or two cutaways at the very beginning and end. Having known in advance that Lubezki and Birdman had employed this camera technique, naturally my eye was attuned to it, and I found it to be a little distracting.
It wasn’t that the movement was poorly executed, it wasn’t. Or that it didn’t fit the setting or tone, it did. It was just that it didn’t seem all that necessary. At first I thought to myself that the film would even benefit from distinct cuts. Sure, the pure environment of a Broadway theatre with all of its nooks and crannies, is ideal for a tracking shot, but the narrative shouldn’t suffer for the sake of maintaining a camera illusion that some have deemed a publicity stunt. But as the film progressed into its second and third acts and the energy level rose exponentially, the camera movement really pushed the intensity and maintained a level of fervency that perfectly captured the psychological state of Riggan Thomson, a washed up superhero actor who’s putting on a stage play to prove he still matters.
The film is stacked top to bottom with energising performances from a super talented cast. A former superhero actor, Michael Keaton, who just might take home the Best Actor Oscar for his roller coaster-like portrayal of the borderline schizophrenic, plays Thomson beautifully. But I thought in the first half of the film it was Edward Norton, playing the Broadway lifer Mike Shiner, who stole the show.
It wasn’t until about two thirds of the way into the film, where Keaton lambasts a New York Times critic, played by Lindsay Duncan, who seems dead set on destroying his show just to send a message, that I really saw the hype surrounding Keaton, who was certainly strong in the first act but didn’t necessarily jump off the screen. But everyone should believe the hype, and after taking home Best Actor at last night’s Gotham Awards, Keaton should be seen as a strong frontrunner in an ever competitive Best Actor competition.
Filling out the female contingent of the film is a better-than-ever Emma Stone, playing the equally messed up offspring of Thomson, and a resurgent Naomi Watts, playing the show’s female lead and Shiner’s off-stage lover. Though it was nice to see Watts, it was Emma Stone who really leaves her mark on the film. In particular with a monologue that stripped Keaton down to his skivvies, though not in the literal sense, that scene comes later.
What impressed me the most with Birdman was that while it maintains itself as a satire, which it certainly is, it’s never bitter. The film is not an assault on super-heroism but rather an exploration of the mid-life crisis, or late-life crisis of the sixty-three year old Keaton. It’s a film dead set on capturing the struggle of the artist, the struggle for admiration, and the struggle for recognition. It’s a very honest film, especially when you consider that Keaton is essentially playing himself in a film that’s about a guy essentially playing himself. The real illusion of Birdman is not the camera movement, it’s not Lubezki, or Iñárritu, it’s Keaton, who with this film is now achieving the career resurgence and recognition that Riggan Thomson so desperately seeks in a film unlike any other.
Birdman hits theatres January 1nd.