By Marshall Shaffer
I hardly think it counts as a spoiler anymore to say that “Birdman” (sometimes also credited with the title “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is edited to make the majority of the film appears as if there are not edits. This does not, however, mean the film is intended to give us the illusion of unbroken action. Breaks in time and space are quite clear, yet the effect of the long take remains.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, as he would now have us call him, achieves the herculean feat of collapsing a timeline of roughly a few weeks into pure continuity. He’s less interested in continuous action as he is a continuous feeling or sensation, an invigorating break from the oneupmanship that seems to come baked in with long-held takes.
Waiting for a cut or edit in a shot is like waiting for pent-up tension to be relieved, an indulgence Iñárritu refuses to grant. (Leave it to the man who gave us the debilitatingly bleak “Biutiful” to make us writhe.) “Birdman” follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, a former blockbuster superhero star, attempting to win back his legacy in a flashy Broadway play. He has struggles aplenty, both with his inner demons and the cast of characters around him, and the film certainly does not shy away from trying to replicate his anxiety in the viewing audience.
This is not just pure sadistic filmmaking, though; Iñárritu’s chosen form matches the content of the story quite nicely. The film feels consistently restless and anxious, and not just because of the consistent drumming the underscores the proceedings. These sensations are contributed to and complimented by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography.
After his work on “Children of Men,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Gravity,” it’s a wonder Lubezki had any surprises left in store. “Birdman” may very well be his most accomplished cinematic ballet to date, though. There’s an art and a purpose to every position occupied or every shot length employed. Pulling off some of these constantly kinetic scenes must have required some intensely detailed blocking with Iñárritu and the cast, but the level of difficulty makes itself apparent without screaming for attention.
The ensemble of “Birdman” gets few opportunities to convey their feelings in close-ups, since Lubezki and Iñárritu usually prefer longer shots that capture the full range of action in any given scene. Perhaps it’s the lack of such intimate visual knowledge that makes the characters feel more like caricatures. Iñárritu, along with three co-writers, give Keaton and company rich, incisive dialogue to project with grandiosity.
It’s clear that “Birdman” has a lot to say on everything from the glut of superhero films to the state of Broadway, and even arts criticism. Iñárritu’s insights into the industry are quite interesting and incredibly relevant, yet it often feels like his voice is being telegraphed above all. When his commentary supplants the imaginations of individual characters, it reduces them to stock characters from a melodrama.
The majority of the film takes place within the literal confines of a theatre, so some of the grandstanding and shallowness feels somewhat natural. But “Birdman” is hardly the first film to tackle a washed-up star trying to recapture fame and glory; it plays into a long legacy ranging from “Sunset Boulevard” to “Crazy Heart.” Keaton brings a self-referential ferocity to Riggan that makes the character pop, though even that’s not enough to redeem him from all the cliches.
The rest of the cast does a pretty bang-up job with what they’ve been given, which usually means great lines but a clearly ancillary role to Riggan that can be dropped out of Iñárritu’s purview at any given moment. Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner, who plays Riggan’s rival for power within the Broadway production at the center of “Birdman,” ironically outperforms Keaton himself. There’s a certain seduction to Norton’s performance as he narcissistically plays mind games with everyone around him to manipulate the situation in his favor.
And Emma Stone, who plays Riggan’s daughter Sam, gives what may well be her most thrilling performance to date in “Birdman.” She’s excelled at playing the sharp-witted cool girl, but Iñárritu gives her something darker to play around with here. Stone takes the challenge and excels, exploring deeper crevices of her character and emerging with an intense emotion that feels rather dangerous.
“Birdman,” as a whole, is highly concerned with restoring a sense of danger to art. Attending the theater used to be quite a dicey proposition, as lacking safety controls often resulted in edifices burning to the ground. Then, theatrical lighting came around, and audiences got comfortable and complacent.
Iñárritu never precisely identifies when that happened to cinema (though a good case could be made that he’s saying it began with the advent of the superhero film), but every ambitious second of “Birdman” is dedicated to providing a sense of instability. While the film may not offer the most original or well-written screenplay, it does have a balls to the wall sensibility that cannot be ignored, missed, or dismissed.
“Birdman” will be at a/perture Cinema beginning in November.
Marshall Shaffer is a senior at Wake Forest University specializing in film and media studies. He has been writing film reviews and other cinematic commentary on his blog Marshall and the Movies since 2009, and his work has also been syndicated on The Christian Science-Monitor. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs. Yuo can read more of his reviews HERE.