Birdman is definitely a ride, but I think that it’s more of a ride for fans of film than for the average movie goer. Writer/Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu constructs a movie that’s constantly firing on different levels and gives the audience a lot to digest.
This movie is a story told from the perspective of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Riggan was the lead in the multi-billion dollar movie franchise, Birdman. When the movie begins his life is in a downward spiral. He’s left the movie franchise; he’s divorced his wife; he’s trying to care for his estranged daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Stone); and he’s sinking all his remaining money into a Broadway play. On top of all of that, Riggan’s become mentally unstable and hears the voice of Birdman in his head. Riggan is writing, directing and starring in the play in an attempt to prevent himself from becoming irrelevant and proving himself as an artist.
The play features 3 other actors, two women and one men. The two women are Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts). Right before the previews for the show begin, the other male actor is struck in the head by a stage light. In order to fill the role and bring the play some much needed publicity, Riggan’s producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis) hires a big name actor: Mike Shiner. Mike, also happens to be dating Lesley and is also an artistic maniac. He hits on Riggan’s daughter, makes a scene during the previews, and just generally makes life harder for Riggan, but he’s Broadway gold so they have to keep him.
As the movie plays out, Riggan struggles to deal with the pressures of trying to hold on to his relationships, career, and his sanity. All during the short time from the beginning of his play’s previews to its opening night. The entire movie is shot without cuts and uses a lot of moving transitional shots, making it feel like the entire thing was done in one shot. The perspective also jumps in and out of Riggan’s broken mind showing us his view point as he occasionally hallucinates having super powers or visualizes things that aren’t there. It’s a manic ride that culminates on the opening night when Riggan has to find a way to deal with everything.
Birdman isn’t so much a movie that you sit back and enjoy as much as it is something that your mind has to race to keep up with. The single shot format combined with the distortion of reality, high energy performances, and an almost excessively layered story give this movie a feeling that it was meant to be re-watched and analyzed by film students and critics. Casual movie goers who are expecting a simple escape from reality could easily be disappointed, confused or exhausted by this movie and it’s dense composition. The ironic thing is that the basic plot of the movie isn’t really that complicated. If you’re paying attention, you can easily tell how things are going to turn out in the movie. The complexity of the movie really lies in its composition and performances, not in its plot.
Once it starts, the movie feels like it hardly takes a breath for at least 30 minutes. With the quick transition from scene to scene it feels like you’re almost being assaulted by the performances and plot points. Whether the movie’s being thoughtful, intense, shocking, funny, or offering up a commentary, there’s very little time to react to what you’r seeing before something else starts to happen. That’s not to say that you won’t recognize great moments, but there are some that will make you start to think only to cut off your thought process to present another moment. Sometimes it’s not even a great moment that catches you, but a little thing like Riggan suddenly having the ability to levitate an object around a room or a strangely unsettling shot of an empty hallway that lingers on screen for an uncomfortable amount of time.
Even the movie’s soundtrack is used to play games with the viewer. There are several moments of conspicuous silence that allow you to focus on the actors. Then there’s times when the only soundtrack is the ambient noise of the scene. Sometimes that ambient noise becomes the soundtrack as drummers and piano players litter the streets surrounding the theater. Then there are times when those ambient noises become full fledged movie scores. Later, those movie scores become part of Riggan’s delusions. It’s just another, well layered, part of the movie that begs for your attention.
All of this talk of audio and visual elements and I’ve barely even mentioned the performances. All of the primary cast gives strong performances that seem like the kind of thing that’s going to get someone nominated for some awards. Keaton, Norton and Stone gave the meatiest performances (with an honorable mention to Galifianakis). Keaton’s performance carries the movie, because it has to but I thought the most eye catching element was Norton’s character, who bursts onto the scene and just turns things upside down (in some cases literally). I also really liked Stone’s performance as Riggan’s drug weathered daughter. She is drowning in typical teenage angst, but she delivers one of the two best speeches in the entire movie when she lays into her father for being part of a comic book movie franchise. The fact that this is a conversation that’s happening between Emma Stone and Michael Keaton, was not lost on me. I do wonder if they were cast for those parts with the intention of having that conversation happen between two people who are tied to comic book franchises in real life. In the same vein, I wondered if Norton’s fight scene with Keaton was at all in reference to the former’s memorable role in the movie Fight Club.
I could be reaching too far to create real life connections to the in-movie actions but there are so many parts of the movie that are directed toward identifying with the real life experience of actors, that I would believe that any kind of meta-references could be intentional. The movie touches on topics like the glut of super hero movies and the struggle of actors to be viewed as artists. It also attacks the action-porn movie makers (and their audiences) as well as the pretentious artistic communities that condemn the careers of the people who make those kinds of movies. Given that the movie is also shot in the actual St. James Theatre and the surrounding area, I’m sure that there are also a lot of Broadway references in the film as well (not a Broadway person, so I wouldn’t catch them).
In the end, this is a movie that I can say is objectively good, actually, it’s very good. Subjectively, it’s not a movie for everyone. Fans of films and the people who give films awards will likely really enjoy this and rave about it (I’m pretty sure they already are raving about it). There are reasons that the movies that win academy awards aren’t the ones that make the most money at the box office. Not every movie-goer wants to watch a movie that they feel like they have to keep up with and this is definitely that kind of movie.
- A uniquely composed movie
- Layered and visual storytelling
- Non-stop pacing
- Strong performances across the board
- Very layered
- The constant barrage of the style can be overwhelming or tiring
- Things are not neatly tied up or explained (not necessarily bad, but something to be aware of)