After first viewing the trailer to Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, I was underwhelmed and slightly confused regarding the storyline. My opinion to see it wavered after viewing Margaret and David’s unanimous 5 star review of it on their final episode of At the Movies. However I hadn’t committed to seeing it until the recent Golden Globes, where Birdman was the subject of several nominations, wins and discussions. Although I am in no way undermining the quality of this film, there’s potentially an alternative explanation behind Birdman’s success at awards ceremonies. A potential explanation: everyone in the entertainment industry is vain and therefore loves to see a movie about themselves (particularly for those lucky few who get mentioned in the film). Although clearly not the only factor contributing to its success, there is some truth in the fact that awards judges would certainly relate to this film more than The Theory of Everything, for example.
The film, (co-written, directed and produced by Alejandro G Iñárritu) depicts actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), at the lowest point of his life. He’s haunted by his past glories playing comic book superhero in the famous 90’s action trilogy of Birdman. Spurred by the realisation that he has achieved nothing since then, Riggan decides to write, direct, and star in a Broadway adaption of Raymond Carver’s story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The initial plot line follows the mould of many other inspirational films before it (Wild, Eat Pray Love, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Bucket List);
- Protagonist finds oneself in a rut.
- Embarks on (often unrealistic) mission of self-discovery to revive their broken life.
- Experiences a creative array of complications preventing said protagonist from achieving goal.
- Protagonist discovers meaning of life/ their place in the world, in an unexpected way, often proving themselves to unsupportive others.
Despite this seemingly simple plotline, Birdman’s storyline feels anything but linear. Although it started with an obvious goal, and ended with a somewhat resolution, the complications in the middle got lost amongst the winding walking shots and mind-controlled tantrums. With that in mind, Iñárritu’s unique directing style is not necessarily a bad thing. From the opening sequence, it’s clear that Birdman is far from your average film. The Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione have combined lengthy one-take shots, shaky handheld camera work and snappy editing to give the effect that whole film was shot in one take. The long-shot technique has been done before in Gravity, The Player, Children of men, Russian Ark and Goodfellas. However the combination of well-timed drum solos and Scorsese-esque walking-shots-from-behind, make Birdman stand out from the crowd. There are countless complications which prevent Riggan from putting on an award winning Broadway show to revive his career. There’s the terrible lead actor, the method-acting dickhead that replaces him (Edward Norton), his financial problems and his relationship with his troubled daughter (Emma Stone) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan). Most of all is his existential crisis, which culminates into numerous arguments with his “Birdman” self. Iñárritu enjoys playing with your perceptions of reality. The film fluctuates between Riggan playing himself, his onstage character, or his inner Superhero. The latter is initially presented through a rough-voiced inner monologue, but progresses into delusions of mind control and flying, encouraged by a fully costumed “Birdman”. As to be expected of any film that has won 134 awards, the cast is exceptional. Michael Keaton thrives as the insecure, irrational Riggan, completely deserving his Golden Globe for Best Actor. Ed Norton typified the devoted, driven, and arrogant thespian, Mike Shiner. Zach Galifianakis broke his type-casted norm, delving from vulgar comedies (The Hangover) into more interesting territory. I was very impressed with his agonised producer-and-best-friend character, fighting to keep it all together. Amy Ryan was uninspiring as the wife, however strong female performances came in the much appreciated form of Emma Stone as Sam and Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts as female co-stars Laura and Lesley. Watts and Riseborough were highly enjoyable as the two emotional struggling actresses who supported (and kissed?) each other in times of strife (Top quote; Lesley: I wish I had more self-respect. Laura: You’re an actress.) Despite Keaton’s remarkable portrayal, the stand out performance was Emma Stone as the feisty post-rehab daughter, Sam. Although the rebellious-teenager role has been done to death, Stone ensured she did not slip into that stereotype by showing Sam’s vulnerability and love for her father. The father-daughter dynamic between Sam and Riggan was an interesting one, as their relationship alternated in who was taking care of who. For Riggan, Sam was the expert at modern life, guiding him through the twitter-clad world making him realise the true intention behind his grand “artistic” statement. The best quote of the film was during a confrontation between the two, as Sam forces upon Riggan the truth of the world;
“And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you wilfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.”
For me, Watching Birdman was similar an experience to watching Life of Pi, an interesting creative experience- just not a film you would watch again and again. The unique storyline, powerful performances, and technically exceptional editing, combine to make Birdman an unmissable film.