Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Rated – R
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu has made only four films since 2000, Birdman being his fifth feature film. For those who are familiar with Iñárritu, his films are very heavy, but he has a great talent for style and the ability to drive home the film’s theme. In Birdman, he focuses on how mainstream blockbuster films are destroying the creative minds of those who simply want to tell great stories, but might not have the chance to do so. This feels like a very personal film, and the way Iñárritu shoots it brings us into the lives of all the characters in a dazzling way.
Beginning with Riggan Thomson (Keaton), he’s an aging actor whose fame comes from the super-hero Birdman franchise, but after decades he’s trying to bring himself back into the spotlight by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He’s betting his entire future (including his house) on this play, which is about to start its previews before opening night. The play’s cast includes Lesley (Watts), another aging actor who always dreamed of being on Broadway, and Mike Shiner (Norton), a gifted actor who has a reputation of beating to his own drum, usually to the director’s disapproval.
There is also Laura, Riggan’s girlfriend; Sam (Stone), Riggan’s daughter who is fresh out of rehab; and Brandon (Galifianakis), Riggan’s manager and seemingly the only sane one who tries his best to be the glue that keeps the whole production together. That’s the basic set-up to this whirlwind of a film. It’s known that the lifestyle of a theater actor can be quite hectic, especially during rehearsals, previews, and every moment in-between. Birdman captures the chaos of backstage, the methods of rehearsals, the intense nerves leading up to when the curtains open, and the family/relationship drama mixed in. But the way Iñárritu decides to present us with all of this chaos is what truly makes Birdman a must-see film of 2014.
You’ve probably already read about it, but in case you haven’t the majority of the film looks like one, single take. Obviously that’s not the case because that would be insane, but with the magic of digital editing the film really feels like one long tracking shot, moving from room-to-room, scene-to-scene. There’s no doubt that the film is made up of extended tracking shots glued together, and every shot is impressive in its own right, but shooting the film this way truly captures one of the most difficult aspects about being on Broadway: continuity.
Aside from the style of Birdman, the film boasts a number of great performances, notably from Michael Keaton. It’s impossible not to see the parallels between Keaton’s role in Birdman and his past fame with the Batman franchise, but I feel that makes everything even more compelling. In addition, Ed Norton and Emma Stone give fantastic supporting performances, two people who put on an act when they’re around Riggan but can strip down to the core of themselves when they’re alone on the rooftop of the theater.
Birdman revolves around Riggan Thomson’s world and everyone in it is one way or another affected by his actions. But even from his girlfriend, ex-wife, and to the theater critic, Thomson is haunted by the voice and ego inside his head telling him how he’ll always be known as the Birdman from his past movies. It’s a thought that every actor has to have throughout their career and the film goes the distance to show the risk of pulling the plug on a money-making franchise to seek out critical acclaim. Is it worth it? Just see how this film ends and then ask yourself again.