(dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu)
“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.”
It’s tough out there for an actor. Surrounded by the pressures of public image and desire to craft something meaningful, it’s enough to drive even the most confident of artists a little mad. In Birdman, Inarritu spins these pressures in wonderfully surreal, depressing, and comedic ways, crafting a film that provides commentary on the Hollywood and Broadway machines through a refreshing and sometimes opaque lens. Birdman follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor attempting to direct and star in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in the hopes to shake off the role of Birdman that defined his career. Beset with issues from an egotistical, high-profile Broadway actor (Edward Norton), a girlfriend who wants more than he can give (Andrea Riseborough), a loyal enabler of a best friend (Zach Galifinakas), and drug-addicted daughter (Emma Stone), Riggan struggles to hold onto his sanity and idea of himself.
Michael Keaton gives a career-best performance as Riggan, creating a complex character driven by naïve-pride, insecurity, self-loathing, and a love of the craft. He’s a product of the bad luck life has dealt him, and the bad luck he’s created for himself. While there are clearly some similarities between Riggan’s career after Birdman, and Keaton’s after Batman, this isn’t an instance of Keaton playing a fictionalized version of himself. Riggan is a man who is unable to let go of anything, which makes him frightening and unlikable at times, and comedic and sympathetic in others. Riseborough, Galifinakas, and Naomi Watts all deliver solid performances that further explore the pitfalls of show business. But Edward Norton and Emma Stone are truly phenomenal in their supporting roles, each facing a different kind of psychosis that make them wonderfully unlikable. Where Birdman really succeeds in its performances is not in creating characters who are endearing, but in creating characters whose desire to be loved (in the variety of forms this word means) makes them accessible.
Inarritu has consistently proven to be one of the most original working directors, and Birdman is wonderful to look at. Using only a few cuts, Birdman is constructed as a seemingly single long take. It’s tracking shots get right up in the character’s faces, allowing them to fill the screen so that every emotion and external shift is given power. Tree of Life cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s use of lighting and color (particularly an argument between Keaton and Stone that’s painted a sickly yellow) may be his best work yet. Birdman is a reminder that the spectacle we so commonly associate with effects work, massive budgets, and plot twists can also be the result of sheer directorial confidence and skill.
The story is expectedly Carver-esque and many of the themes in his short story come into play in the film. Similar to Darren Aronoksky’s Black Swan, the narrative being produced within the film’s story transcends the stage and plays out through every facet of the characters’ lives. Carver’s story is an exploration into the meaning of love, of whether it’s something that be quantified or agreed upon and Birdman tackles this issue as well, marrying it with the struggles of public adoration or lack thereof. Carver’s story and Inarritu’s film offer few answers, but the film complicates the themes by distorting what can be taken literally or figuratively. Throughout the narrative, we see Riggan display a host of powers from levitation, telekinesis, and flight. These often happen at his lowest points (or perhaps highest if we believe Birdman is who he is meant to be) and occasionally we’re shown that these are in Riggan’s head but other times not. While I still remain unsure of what to make of these moments or the film’s ending, I suspect that like Carver’s stories it is the emotions that we’re witnessing that outweigh plot minutia. So my answer in terms of Birdman’s story is not so much what Riggan is doing or how, but why. Is Riggan’s Birdman persona the absence of love or the realization and acceptance of it? Perhaps us not knowing in the end, in being able to decipher for ourselves what love means or doesn’t mean in this story is the unexpected virtue of ignorance.
The film does offer criticism of the blockbuster and superhero film genre (one I do not fully agree with, but find interesting nonetheless) and the pretension that can exist on the stage. It looks at the extremes of two art forms, showcasing the beauty and depravity of both. But the character moments and humanity of the film is far more important that its meta look at acting industries. While it’s at times too heavy, depressing (despite it being genuinely funny at times), and vague to be fully enjoyable from a story standpoint (I can’t picture kicking back with this for too many repeat viewings), Birdman is driven by the power of its breathtaking, hard-hitting performances and phenomenal directorial craft. It’s truly an actor’s film in every sense of the phrase.