My overwhelming impression after walking out of Birdman, the latest effort from distinctive director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu, is that it is a particularly bold film. Not only is it very technically impressive, but it deals with risky themes like the differentiation between pop culture and art and the inherent weakness of critics, which carry with them the potential for a film to look like it is trying far too hard to be above reproach. Luckily for both the movie and the audience, Birdman does not use these themes to disguise any flaws it might not want picked at, and in fact absolutely earns the right to discuss these high concepts. Beautifully written and performed, with a brilliant and unique soundtrack, and genuinely breath-taking cinematography, Birdman is a strong contender for the best film of 2014.
The story follows Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton, taking a good-natured jab at his own career), a washed-up superhero movie star who, in a desperate attempt to be taken seriously, is writing, directing and starring in a stage adaptation of the short stories of Raymond Carver. The play is not going well, and Riggan is forced to hire the pretentious but beloved actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), who chooses to make every scene he’s in a nightmare to direct. On top of this, Riggan has terrible family troubles, with an estranged wife (Amy Ryan) and a drug-addicted daughter (Emma Stone).
This is a truly prestigious cast, rounded out by Zach Galifinakis (as the play’s financial manager) and Naomi Watts (as one of the other actors), and everyone brings their best, with career best turns from both Galifinakis and Stone and Norton as reliably brilliant as ever. Keaton is phenomenal in the leading role, playing both Riggan and Riggan’s ego, which takes the form of the Birdman character from his glory days. Despite the family dynamics and the tension of the production, this is the central conflict of the film, an exploration of the inner workings of the mind rarely seen in mainstream cinema. It makes for absolutely fascinating viewing, and Riggan’s slow mental breakdown is really something to behold, Keaton managing to showcase remarkable restraint and honesty in his portrayal of these crushingly powerful emotions.
Not only does this give the script room for interesting introspection, it also allows for some highly entertaining fantasy sequences. In his head, Riggan possesses telekinetic powers, can fly, and summon a blockbuster action sequence at a moment’s notice, aided by some surprisingly solid effects for a film with this sort of budget. Despite this, the most impressive visual effect is actually the cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki (who shot last year’s Gravity), quite possibly the best DP working today, achieves something unique and mesmerising in Birdman, with the entire film shot to look as if it is all one take. Whilst some may find this trick to be somewhat gimmicky, I found it added a new layer to an already deeply complex film. Not only is it a style which I have never seen before, making it inherently exciting, it also forces the audience into the distressed mind of Riggan, mixing with narrow corridors and oppressive crowds to create an effective sense of claustrophobia. It is a transcendent display from both Lubezki and Inarittu, and elevates Birdman, making it absolutely unforgettable.
I could barely find any flaws with Birdman, and any that did come up were quickly erased from my mind by a directorial flourish or a big laugh (even with all its Big Themes, it is still a very funny film). It is the oddest Oscar contender in some years and whilst its many idiosyncrasies may prove irksome to some viewers, I could not recommend it more highly. An astounding achievement in both the technical and narrative sides of film-making, Birdman is quite probably the best film of this year.