Published on November 13th, 2014 | by Dan Nicholls0
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Michael Keaton gets a bit meta and channels his glorious Batman days in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
To praise Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) by saying it soars high and above the rest of the films released this fall may seem at once hyperbolic and yet, somehow, insufficient. How to describe a movie that picks you up by the armpits and lifts you along with it for a ride miles above the surface, daring you not to look down? Birdman is simply too good — too sharp in its satire, too raw in its portrayal of a broken-down man looking for his final grasp at relevance — for most casual recommendation/damnation. If I end up seeing something better than it before the end of the calendar year, I’ll be both surprised and delighted. With his fifth full-length feature film, director Alejandro González Iñárritu has crafted a stupendous visual and storytelling marvel that left me in awe.
The film’s plot — though it does take back seat to character development — concerns the opening of an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The play’s star, director, and writer is former box office superhero Riggan Thomas, who once commanded multiplexes across the globe as the titular star of the Birdman series. Burned out in Hollywood and desperately seeking a career resurgence, Riggan orchestrates his stage comeback by filling out his cast with a bankable star (Edward Norton) and running every aspect of the show behind the scenes with his producer (Zach Galifianakis) and assistant (who’s also his daughter, played by Emma Stone). As the countdown to opening night approaches, Riggan is faced with obstacles ranging from production practicalities, resistance from his prima donna supporting players, and a slowly crumbling psyche that’s pushed further to the edge by his internal monologue, which is presented in the form of his raspy-voiced alter-ego.
Director Iñárritu and his Director of Photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, chose to tell Birdman’s story in a (seemingly) single take, without any noticeable cuts or jumps in action or flow of camera movements. Being swept from scene to scene in such fluid and sweeping movements keeps the momentum flowing steadily forward to the point that you forget all about the lack of traditional picture editing; it’s a high-wire act for the filmmaking team that pays off in dividends during the actual viewing experience. I’ve never much been a fan of Iñárritu’s work, usually finding his stories too serious and contrived to make for a viewing experience that I can fully hand over my brain or heart to. But Birdman is his career high point so far, and his accomplishments as a visual storyteller are elevated even higher than would have been realistically imaginable by his team of talented technicians and the chameleons in front of the camera. Every aspect of the filmmaking process, from production design to the musical score, serves as exemplary reminders of the possibilities of the medium.
It’s impossible to speak about Birdman without mentioning the star at the heart of it all: Michael Keaton. The former Batman himself perhaps drew on real-life experience in order to portray an actor who feels he descended from the peak of his career long ago. But, maybe he didn’t. The term ‘comeback role’ gets tossed around a lot, but Keaton’s never really gone away. He’s popped up here and there over the years, but Birdman is a real chance to shine and the actor does not take the opportunity for granted. A uniformly excellent supporting cast backs him up, with Edward Norton in particular breaking through as an egotistical star with overpowering insecurities of his own. Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, and Emma Stone also leave their own marks as the women in Riggan’s life, but the camera and the story always turn back to Keaton’s face when the noise of the real world drifts away. The camera seems drawn to Keaton, as if unable to break a tractor beam spell cast over it. And when an actor, like Keaton here, is at the top of their game, performing material this strong, it’s hard for anyone to take their eyes away.
Even though it’s now November, I still never like to get too ahead of myself about what is the year’s ‘best’; you never know what smaller gems are going to surprise you and completely win you over when you least expect it, and the finest in world cinema doesn’t usually get a chance to stand with the Hollywood names at nearby movie theaters. And yet, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) spoke to me in a way that I haven’t experienced yet this year, and the film takes daring leaps that the right moviegoers, the ones who completely give themselves over to the film, will welcome with glee. Birdman is at once a show business satire, a mid-life crisis fantasy, and an ode to the act of putting yourself out on a limb in the name of art; the film transcends labels and genres to fly as something completely of its own being. It is, simply put, a must-see.