You would think that one movie that blurs the line between reality and fiction to convey the challenges of being an actor would be enough for one week, but Birdman is just as absorbing as Clouds of Sils Maria and also offers up a totally unique experience. It’s neat that Michael Keaton portrays a former superhero movie star after having played Batman himself and the one-shot shooting style is an absolutely astounding technical achievement, but the best part is that both are used in ways that serve the story, not as alluring gimmicks. If it were the other way around, Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner wouldn’t approve of it.
Keaton leads as Riggan Thomson, a former big-time star who’s hanging onto every last bit of fame he has via the legacy of his hit 90s superhero film series. In an effort to get himself back on top, Riggan adapts Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for Broadway. Even though he manages to get the play into rehearsals and then previews, every single day something threatens to tear the production apart including his own inner demon, the big screen superhero that made him famous, Birdman.
Birdman takes place in a rather theatrical reality and uses some unusual technical styles, but director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and an infectious drum beat makes it effortless to fall right into step with the tone, pace and his one-shot shooting style. Of course there are a few sneaky cuts in the mix, but unless you’re deliberately looking for them, the technique is seamless. The choice to use “one shot” serves the narrative exceptionally well and bolsters the viewer’s connection to the characters.
Riggan’s got so many achievements and advantages yet so many problems to go alone with them. His daughter (Emma Stone) is his personal assistant, but she’s harboring some serious resentment for him. He scores a big-name star in the theater industry (Edward Norton) for one of the main roles, but the guy is totally self-absorbed and is willing to sabotage the production in order to deliver an authentic performance. On top of that, Riggan’s also got a little something going on with one of his co-stars (Andrea Riseborough) and his producer/attorney/best friend (Zach Galifianakis) is about to unravel. Riggan’s busy dealing with all of this in the confines of the St. James Theatre and thanks to that single-shot approach, you feel confined to the theater and consumed by the challenges right along with him.
The one-shot is brilliant and absolutely enhances the experience, but it’s worth noting that the narrative and performances are so good, the film could have held its own without it. Clearly there’s a bit of a crossover between the fiction of the film and Keaton’s career, but, for lack of better words, Keaton’s a natural as Riggan. The character’s got good intentions, but he also has some serious issues too, and because Keaton manages to balance both so well, you’re able to root for Riggan to come out on top while still objectively assessing his behavior and how it affects those around him.
Birdman’s got a big roster, but there isn’t a single cast member who doesn’t make a commendable impression. Even though Norton’s Mike Shiner is busy rattling the foundation of the production, he’s coming from such a sincere and passionate place that, at times, it can be tough to judge him for it. Plus, there’s some truth to what he’s ranting and raving about. He says things like, “Popularity is the sluttly little cousin of prestige.” Perhaps he’s got a point, but a big part of the reason Mike is still there at all is because he’s popular enough to sell tickets. His character is also constantly making you wonder, how far can you go for art? Some of his tactics do produce outstanding work, but oftentimes he steamrolls co-stars in the process, like his own girlfriend who’s anxious enough about making her Broadway debut in Riggan’s show, Naomi Watts’ Lesley.
Stone’s got a similar effect on the viewer as Sam. On the one hand, she seems professional and responsible, but she’s got a reputation. There’s also some talk of Riggan being an absent father, but they’re together now, yet she’s still giving him a hard time about it. Who’s right and who’s wrong? It’s a question you can only answer for yourself and that’s part of the reason the film is so engaging. Nothing is cut and dry, and there isn’t even a particularly defined end goal. Riggan doesn’t want one notorious critic to shut him down after opening night, but other than that, Birdman’s got much more of a free-flowing, slice-of-life feeling to it.
Many are constantly pointing a finger at the industry for leaning far too heavily on familiar stories and scenarios rather than developing original concepts, but Birdman goes to show that when you’ve got a solid idea and someone with a clear, impassioned vision to make it happen, you can come out with a film that is truly one-of-a-kind and feels like something you’ve never seen before – even if you did just sit through a similar piece three days prior.
Click here for all of our NYFF 2014 coverage. Click on the links below for our other NYFF 2014 reviews:
- Clouds of Sils Maria
- Goodbye to Language
- Inherent Vice
- Maps to the Stars
- Misunderstood (Incompresa)
- Two Days, One Night