Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The premise Birdman adopts isn’t necessarily a new idea. Films that follow the concept of the stage and the issues that ensues beforehand can be seen, for instance, in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway or Mel Brooks’ The Producers. In Allen’s film, a young aspiring artist seeks to finance and direct his first Broadway feature, only to find consistent obstacles that bar him from achieving the message and image of what he wants conveyed on the stage. The situations are hilariously exaggerated, yet the film is poignant in that it poses the question: Does one love the man or the artist. Birdman’s premise adopts the exaggerated obstacles and the hilarity of the background situations, yet takes on the question of ‘who is the artist’ and goes beyond the answer.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggin Thomas, a former superhero actor, known for playing Birdman. He is only known as that character and nobody recognizes him as the beyond his past film career. He is burned out, washed up and desperate to make a name for himself outside of the persona that everyone identifies him with. Birdman follows a handful of days prior to the opening night of Riggin’s new play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” his first attempt at Broadway and also his personalized form of career redemption. Things begin to spiral out of control after the injury of his lead actor, prompting him to hire a replacement method actor (Edward Norton), whose unpredictability creates tension between him and Riggin. Added to the mix is Riggin’s fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), his ex-wife, an assortment of sexually-confused actors, and a venomous critic.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s masterful film is successful and becomes its own entity because of Inarritu’s tremendous narrative style in Birdman. Inarritu has shown in the past his ability to frame a storyline and give his characters space to evolve. His film, Babel, hinged upon the metamorphosis of his characters, yet not by choice, but by the environment and the situations arising from such an environment. The environment functions as a catalyst to compel change within Babel and this is no exception with Birdman. The characters in Birdman are forced to change due to the continued crisis and the doubt of whether the play will be successful on opening night. While some characters change in a subtle capacity, it is Riggin Thomas who shifts dramatically from desperate to acceptant of his situation. Birdman also tells the tale of change not from an exterior form, but rather from a subconscious manner. The audience is privy to Riggin’s thoughts and we get to bear witness to his internalized struggle. He struggles with himself to separate from Birdman, to which his sanity is questioned numerous times. The audience is left with the question of whether this movie should be viewed literally or in a farcical capacity.
Inarritu’s blending of narrative style offers this film the unique feeling of viewing this film two ways; as if it were being viewed upon the stage or from the seats of a cinema. Traditionally an audience member views the actions on the stage as being seamless and being influenced by raw emotion. Birdman functions as a blending of stage and film, to which the audience is left with the option as to HOW to view the film. The entirety of Birdman is filled in long, uncut tracking sequences, which creates the aura of being invested and involved within the action of the film and experiencing the behind-the-scenes situations of Riggin’s play. These sequences are impressively filmed and have now established a new style of filmmaking: Uncut realism. Additionally, the farcical elements of the film function within the superhero canon. Riggin’s mental state functions as a secondary narrative where superhero abilities are perceived as realism. These matter-of-fact instances are done in a style that they are represented as ordinary, yet true-life realism is juxtaposed with each of these sequences. Inarritu blends two contradictory genres in Birdman, to which theater and action filmmaking are spliced together. This unique narrative style offers a plot structure that is the first of its kind, an achievement that undoubtedly will find Inarritu some awards.
Most notably, Inarritu’s handling of Michael Keaton was expert, to say the least. He, along with Keaton’s extraordinary talent, is able to separate Keaton’s past film experience from Birdman. Michael Keaton has transformed himself and has made his performance as Riggin Thomas to be the performance of his career. Michael Keaton, having been viewed minimally since his work in the Batman franchise, has made a new name for himself and has proved himself as tremendous actor. Just in the style of Inarritu’s direction, Keaton has established a new style of acting. His performance blends theater and cinema style, to which the audience witnesses exaggerated theater emotion along with a restrained emotional core that film actors commonly use. Keaton exhibits these talents throughout the film, to which his emotional core establishes the environment of the film. This causes the supporting roles of the film hinge upon Keaton’s delivery and execution of scenes. For that, Keaton was left with th difficult task of becoming a character that works within the canon of Birdman while avoiding the chance of the character being associated with himself. With that, Keaton achieves both goals with the audience craving more from his performance. He is able to weave together vanity, remorse, hilarity, humility and rebirth all in the span of the 119 minute film. The final product of Michael Keaton’s performance ought to be acknowledged as a new style of acting, one that has proved Keaton to be an actor of the highest caliber.
Birdman functions as a film that appeals to both theater and cinema goers alike. The perfect blending of genres formulates a film that conveys hilarity and poignancy. The audience of the film are treated as both viewers from the seats of the stage while also being enthralled with the plot of the film, as one would be when watching film from the action genre. The narration style of the film, under the expert direction of Inarritu, must be noted as revolutionary in cinema with his choice of filming Birdman in long sequences and uncut layers of drama and comedy. Birdman functions as filmmaking perfection, an achievement that has proven itself to be a genuine contender going into the 2015 awards season. Birdman is guaranteed to satisfy.