Beautiful. Ugly. Funny.
A nearly naked Michael Keaton levitates meditatively in a dingy room, facing the window with his back to the camera. The rusty voice inside his head laments his current life status. He quips, casually, “This place is horrible…smells like balls’. Thus, the tone for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is set. A quite frankly hilarious look at the dark corners of first world life, producer/director/co-writer Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s washed-up soul search is a genuine cinematic masterpiece. Rarely does a film, particularly a black comedy, appeal to as many movie-going senses quite like this.
From virtually every standpoint, the film excels. The screenplay is simply inspired, a multiple theme exploration ranging from subtle nuances to unequivocal brutality. Love, pride, sacrifice, redemption, twenty first century social influence, and man’s lust for relevancy in the ever-developing technological apex that is the modern world, are each ripped apart and sewn back together by Iñárritu and his team’s razor sharp, witty-as-hell dialogue, punctuated by consistent, downright clever thematic undertones, setups and callbacks. It’s nothing new as such, just quality writing of the highest order telling an ever-engaging tale – probably the best example (and easily my favourite) since 2013’s American Hustle.
Where the picture certainly is groundbreaking is on the technical side. Those familiar with my previous article on the subject will know that I’m a big fan of all forms of the long take and tracking shot, but the feature length linear, seemingly single shot employed here is a unique work of art. Broken only briefly at the beginning and end, the masterful behind-the-scenes thought, technique, and, of course, patience (multiple takes were required for the vast majority of shots, with the slightest error calling a halt), turned out to bring more than a touch of method-like reality to the Broadway-based subject matter. The ambition of Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is matched only by the success of the finished product, a startling combination of Steadicam and handheld camerawork. Words do it little justice. Of course the editing and pacing of such a tricky filming strategy is crucial, and it’s aided here by another distinctive aspect in the form of Antonio Sánchez’s score. Made up primarily of a moody but refreshing jazz tinged bah-dum-dum-dah of drumming decadence, carelessly representing the forever-changing, unpredictable nature of what could be called the human timescale of emotion, it helps to steady and dictate the rhythm of the long takes in an easy, always underlying fashion throughout.
To round it all off is one of the finest set of performances you will see this year, each of which matches the plot beat for beat in terms of organic nature and quality. The six front and centre players (Keaton/Norton/Stone/Galifianakis/Watts/Riseborough) are charged and absorbing in their respective roles, gliding or stumbling in and out of the narrow, cavernous spaces supposedly behind and below New York’s St. James theatre (actually a marvellous soundstage design), as they delightfully portray a group of souls each haunted by something they’re not quite sure of to the point of constant, open, volatile conflict with each other (Stone in particular is wonderful).
As a childhood fan who remembers their long lost peaks however, for me it’s Keaton and Norton who really take proceedings above and beyond. There’s something so personally satisfying about seeing an actor you really have a lot of time for due to memories from yesteryear, but have generally forgotten about, come back with a true powerhouse performance. When it happens twice in the same picture, the inner you does a little finch clenching ‘yes!’, Home Alone-style, and you instantly want to go back and watch their classics. Norton is electric, hammering out the dialogue with the smug smirk and arrogant nature of an unholy clichéd stage method actor (you know, a twat). The ability to convey such a focused, yet blind character’s hints and moments of real honesty in the manner which he does, reminds us that Norton, when he feels like it, is a truly great actor. It’s Keaton though who is the real success story. Voice work aside, I don’t think I’ve seen him in a notable film since Jackie Brown, and that came out in 1997. But my word was it worth the wait. The parallels between Keaton and Riggan Thomson – both former stars attempting to mount a comeback, but ultimately best remembered by most for having to try and act with their chins – make for intriguing viewing. It’s a bare all experience (quite literally) for both actor and audience, as he lurches brilliantly from bitter humour and cutting sarcasm, to relatable personal/career conflicts and eventual emotional lows. It’s a turn that puts Keaton in serious contention for an Academy Award. Should he win, it would be thoroughly deserved.
Put simply, Birdman is a beautiful film in so, so many ways. Pretty much every way in fact. It’s the definition of ying-yang type emotionally engaging entertainment; a classy, mirthful reel that punches you in the stomach a fair few times, but ultimately leaves you fully satisfied and unable to suppress a smile come curtain down.