When it comes to metafiction in film, a few immediately come to mind: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Scream, etc. There is something inherently pleasing about the cleverness and wit used to create a successfully meta piece of fiction; something that uses acknowledgment of its fictitious nature to its artistic advantage. In a way, it also broadens the potential commentary a piece of art can make, allowing its message to transcend the book or film in question and level a finger at our present reality. If you’re looking for something along these lines, or you simply love film in general, then Birdman is for you.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s masterpiece (in my opinion), a film that everyone should see just for the sake of the staggering creativity and mastery of craft on display. Iñárritu, (Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros, and Biutiful) has succeeded in making a film that is as much about film as it is about theatre, performance, and most importantly, the subjective nature of art in general. Along with his co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, Iñárritu waves a tale of struggle and beauty, dreamlike in its presentation of the reality of the troubled and possibly insane Riggan Thompson. Riggan is a middle-aged actor who at one time enjoyed great success as the star of a series of superhero films, playing the titular Birdman. Now, twenty years after the third and final Birdman, Riggan is attempting to revitalize his career and feel fulfilled once more as both an artist and person by producing a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan’s struggle at artistic validation is also bolstered by the actor who plays him: Michael Keaton.
Keaton, who also starred in Tim Burton’s iconic Batman films some twenty years ago, has had a quieter post-superhero career than some expected. Many have viewed this film as his comeback, and comeback he does, at full force. Keaton’s performance here is excellent and I would not be surprised if he received an Oscar nomination for his incredible work here. Keaton portrays Riggan’s need to be validated with such nuance and honesty that it’s difficult not to root for him, especially as Riggan’s play starts coming undone as it nears the final, decisive night of its preview run. Though there are other ancillary characters in this story, the meat of it belongs to Keaton’s Riggan, and he carries the film easily, giving the audience an extensive panorama of Riggan as a person. From the frustrated and distant father, to the obsessive creator, to the deflecting ex-husband, Keaton displays it all with earnest, his emotions never feeling unwarranted or overacted. The fevered, quasi-reality of film helps reinforce Riggan’s precarious mental state as well as many times throughout the film he is inexplicably granted the power of telekinesis and is hounded by the voice of his Birdman movie alter-ego. These breaks from reality elevate Birdman to something more than just a drama, melding outright fiction with Riggan’s already fictitious hyper reality to create something truly unique and thought provoking.
Though artistically motivated and desperate to prove himself as a creator and performer, it is clear that Riggan’s choices in life, both during the height of his fame and after, have had lasting repercussions on his relationships with other people. His failures as a father are exhibited through his tenuous relationship with his daughter, Sam, who has recently been released from rehab. Acting as her dad’s assistant, Sam feels as if she is the only one who sees that her father’s desperate grasp at fame is misplaced; he can never be what he was, especially not now in the age of the summer blockbuster, proliferated with superhero franchises and CGI-fueled tent-poles. Her frustration with Riggan is perfectly expressed through Emma Stone’s performance. Here, Stone once again displays the talent that has made her so successful, while also managing to give life to character that is uncharacteristically mean and blunt. Gwen Stacy this is not. And that’s a good thing. Sam is an angry person and she has the right to be; her absent father’s lazy attempts at reconciliation are pathetic and, in an especially memorable scene, she calls him out on the inherent hypocrisy of his quest for validation in an age he actively rejects. I have always thought Emma Stone to be incredibly talented and I think this is her best performance yet.
Beyond Riggan’s relationship with his daughter, his relationships with the rest of his friends, cast, and crew are also made interesting and memorable by a talented array of supporting players. Edward Norton (Fight Club, American History X) plays Mike, a method actor who is amazing at his job, but seemingly unable to function as a real human being. Mike is called in as a last minute replacement for the show and his dedication to method further exacerbates the fragile nature of the production, his ridiculous desire to find the “truth” in every scene clashing repeatedly with Riggan’s direction. Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive, King Kong) plays Lesley, a neurotic actress who has always dreamed of opening on a Broadway show. Watts is characteristically wonderful in the few scenes she has, displaying all of the self-doubt and nervousness one can find in performers of any kind. Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover, Due Date) is Jake, perhaps the only real friend Riggan has left. Galifianakis plays Jake as a straight man, familiar with weathering Riggan’s meltdowns and constant ire, yet still supportive of his best friend, who he knows to be truly talented at heart. Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, The Office) plays Sylvia, Riggan’s ex-wife who wants Riggan to succeed, but more importantly, wants him to be happy and have a stronger relationship with their daughter. Ryan is charming and subtle in her role, giving us shades of a Sylvia who still loves Riggan, mingled with the one burdened with the memories of his transgressions while they were married.
All in all, the cast and performances in Birdman are wonderful, yet I imagine just as much focus will be directed towards Iñárritu and the technical wizardry he accomplishes her. Birdman is a marvel of ingenuity, shot in such a way that it appears to be done in one take. Though this has been done before in Hitchcock’s Rope and there are many long shots in Alfonso Caurón’s Children of Men and Gravity, Iñárritu accomplished this for an entire film, in spectacular fashion. The camera floats around the sets, circling the actors, and following them as they traverse the theatre where Riggan is staging his play and the streets that surround it. It’s some truly head-scratching stuff as you wonder at just how intricate and headache-inducing the blocking and choreography for these scenes must have been, especially considering that some takes lasted as long as fifteen minutes. It’s an amazing achievement and one that I won’t soon forget. And yet, even more impressive is that the cinematography lends itself to the story, accentuating Riggan’s crumbling psyche and further perpetuating the dreamlike quality of the film. Much of the credit must also be given to Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, whose filmography is laden with visually stunning work. The man has worked on other long shot films such as the aforementioned Children of Men and Gravity, and is also a Terrence Malick stalwart, having worked on The New World, To the Wonder, and the divine, Tree of Life. Lubezki’s work is always something to behold and Birdman should rank amongst the very best of his work, so impressive is the artistry with which it was filmed.
On an auditory level, Antonio Sanchez’s score moves things along at a brisk pace, using jazz to further key into Riggan’s growing anxiety over the state of his play. After having seen Whiplash recently, I felt like this movie further served to show me a glimpse of a musical genre to which I had not before given much thought; the frantic, hypnotic energy of jazz in this film is used perfectly, creating the nonstop sensation upon which the film rides. Put simply, the score is astounding.
With all of this being said, I shall reiterate: I loved Birdman. It affected me in a way few films do, touching upon the nature of art and obsession inherent in creativity, as well as pointing an accusative finger at everyone, from performers who are ludicrously serious about their method, to noncreative and vitriolic critics, to those who shell out their money to see two-hundred million dollar superhero films three of four times a year. Though I love those two hundred million dollar super hero films, I respect Iñárritu’s opinion. He is a filmmaker of the highest caliber and I look forward to seeing what he does next. Birdman, in my opinion, is a truly transcendent piece of art, one that manages to comment on our reality while also containing an important message within itself. If ever there was a movie to restore someone’s faith in film, this is it.