In the 15 years Alejandro González Iñárritu has been making films, I’ve learned that there is a direct correlation between Iñárritu’s work and my cognitive gratification. The masochist in me is enamored with the emotional brutality of Iñárritu’s films, and the filmmaker in me is continually inspired by his audacious methods of storytelling.
I was in high school when I saw Iñárritu’s first feature, Amores Perros. I started the film late one night, and when it ended in the early hours of a new day, I was unable to form a coherent thought. I was so moved by its power, so troubled by its intensity. A few years later, I walked out of a screening of 21 Grams in a haze, my mind stuck in the emotional hell that film created. From the moment Babel finished, the film became, and remained, one of my top films of the decade. My experience with Iñárritu’s Biutiful was different. Biutiful wasn’t as raw and alive as Iñárritu’s other work. But it grew on me. And with time, I came to love it.
My love for Iñárritu’s latest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), took hold about 25 minutes into the film. That’s when I became acutely aware of what it was doing. The technique of the film has already been discussed endlessly, and that’s because there’s no way to avoid mentioning it. If you’ve managed to keep Birdman’s style hidden, then cease reading this review. Because here it is: the entirety of Birdman occurs in one unbroken shot. As lensed by our best living cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar winner for Gravity), the camera in Birdman never cuts away. It stays present, dancing in the moment, the tension constantly mounting. Many will likely to cry afoul to the film’s style. It’s smug, it’s garish, it’s style over substance. I disagree. A long take is destined to be noticed and admired and criticized. But Iñárritu isn’t the type of filmmaker who begs you to notice, he’s interested in having the film wash over you and transport you somewhere.
Any mention that Birdman takes place in one shot needs to be immediately amended with the fact that Birdman actually appears to take place in one shot. The film is 119 minutes long, but was not captured in a single 119 minute take. A few hidden cuts were masked digitally, but this is something the film embraces. The movie often jumps forward in time within one extended shot. For example, a character may be finishing play rehearsal, walk off the stage, go to their dressing room, and when they come out, the stage is now in the middle of a full production the following day. Trust me, it makes far more sense when you see the film, but the point is, Iñárritu wants to create the illusion that we’re there, in the moment. Now.
The moment, as it were, is the few days before Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) opens his new play on Broadway, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan wrote, stars and is directing the play, all in an effort to rid himself of his image as a washed-up Hollywood icon. Riggan became famous for starring in three films as a superhero called Birdman. And, in the most literal sense, Riggan has yet to rid himself of his alter ego. Occasionally, Birdman speaks to Riggan as a Devil on Riggan’s shoulders. Birdman fuels the actor’s rage, talking directly to him in a deep baritone voice, or even appearing next to him, tempting Riggan to break bad.
The play is meant to act as Riggan’s resurgence. To bring him back to life. To allow him be taken seriously as an... artist. Helping with the production is Riggan’s lawyer/confidant, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s recently rehabbed daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), and the play’s main cast, the hot tempered Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), Mike’s fragile girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), and Riggan’s own love interest, Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Needless to say, pre-production of the play is not going well. Mike often disrupts preview shows with his wild antics, while Riggan’s limitless narcissism and insecurity plague his nearly every waking moment. But the show must go on, and Iñárritu and Lubezki are there to catch every glorious and hilarious second of it.
It would be impressive for any film to dare to attempt Birdman’s technical style. But camera trickery will only get you so far. To make a great film, you have to have a great story. Such is what Iñárritu and his co-writers, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo have achieved here. They’ve created a wonderful story about a disastrous production, and managed to flesh it out beautifully. Every member of the cast delivers a performance that rivals the best work they’ve done. Under the tutelage of Iñárritu, they all spent two weeks filming in Broadway’s St. James Theatre, and their collective dedication to Iñárritu’s style is evident. Emma Stone, in particular, is a young actress I’ve always liked, but never expected this from. She has a monologue in Birdman that is pure pile, spewing insults at her father, the closeness of the camera in direct proportion with her temperament. The tighter the camera pushes in, the more furious Stone gets. It’s truly astonishing.
But in addition to Iñárritu and Lubezki, the real showstopper here is Michael Keaton. Throughout Birdman, Riggan Thomson’s emotional stability is a freight train threatening to derail at any moment. Keaton, who I’ve always considered one of my favorite actors, had to reach as far as he could to realize this character so profoundly. There isn’t a weak moment or false note to be found in this performance. Keaton will likely be showered with praise and awards attention for months to come, and it will all be more than well earned. The man has simply never been better.
Movies like Birdman justify a lifetime dedicated to cinema. The film singlehandedly proves that unique stories (and revelatory methods in which to tell them) still very much exist. A few days ago, I watched Iñárritu, Keaton and Norton on Charlie Rose. It was an insightful interview, a must watch for any admirer of the respective careers of the three interviewees. But something Iñárritu said about Birdman has stuck with me. In justifying the film’s shooting style, Iñárritu said that in life, there are no cuts. You can’t magically jump to later in your day, or to a month earlier in your life. Whether you like it or not, you’re stuck in your life, with no cuts allowed. Yes, exactly. A
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