– by David Morgan-Brown
In 1974, Philippe Petit illegally set up a tight-rope wire across the top of the Twin Towers and walked across the two buildings on the wire, with absolutely no safety backup. He successfully accomplished it and was arrested, but became a legend, with a doco behind his stunt and a biopic to be released this year. Now, writer-director Alejandro Inarritu Gonzalez and his cast and crew have accomplished something almost as risky and astonishing with equal success, and this goes further beyond just impressing people with death-defying tricks.
Birdman (or it’s full title Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a masterpiece that’s perfect in its artistic expression, its technical cinematic display, and its entertainment value. It takes a relatively standard trope, the washed-up movie star who believes he can make a comeback as a serious actor, and utilises it to comment on the uselessness and expendability of the modern everyday man. This film deals squarely with pain, anxiety, and embarrassment, just like Gonzalez’s other films (Life’s a Bitch, 21 Grams, Babel), but what’s so different about Birdman than the director’s other films is this isn’t a wristcutting event – as serious as it takes the emotions of its characters, it remains through and through a comedy film with plenty of great jokes (though some more nervous than others).
The humour is certainly needed, otherwise this film may prove to be too unbearable. Birdman’s set-up is made to appear like it has been accomplished in one shot with zero cuts and no editing, letting time and space move as freely as it may do on stage (although surreal flourishes are appropriately used to connect the “shots”). Along with the scattered percussion music score, this lends the film a nervousness that puts us very thoroughly through the experiences of our characters, namely main character Riggan’s (Michael Keaton) pre-show anxiety that develops into an existential crisis.
Keaton’s appearance in this film sounds pretty close to home and pretty near the bone, as he plays a forgotten actor approaching his senior years, but was once a beloved actor of the famous Birdman superhero movies of the early 1990s (sound familiar?). Keaton takes this role with a good sense of humour (and self-awareness) and has likely a new role he will most be remembered for – he navigates a large portion of this high-wire film, trying to keep the production of the stage-play he is working on together while also wrestling with himself and his inner demon (who appears as Birdman himself), trying to figure out what is best for his career and, ergo, his life.
All the supporting roles are also amazing – Edward Norton plays Mike, a gleefully self-assured actor who believes he’s doing something important, that he’s beyond the “cultural genocide” of superhero films, and claims acting is the only time he feels he isn’t lying; Emma Stone gives what’s likely her best performance as Riggan’s daughter whose exposure to the celebrity world (as well as rehab) has given her a head-strong pessimism that counters any of her father’s idealism; and Naomi Watts also stars as Mike’s girlfriend and co-star of the show, one of the more sympathetic characters who is appearing on Broadway for the first time, and she meets this with mixed emotions.
Birdman already feels like a classic and its originality is sure to be imitated for years to come. Its one-shot set-up is no gimmick, it’s a unique structure that guides us fluidly through the characters as they interweave the Broadway theatre and each other, whilst replacing editing trickery with something more truthful and committed. Birdman now soars with the great films about the business of acting, like Sunset Blvd and Mulholland Dr (whose Naomi Watts character might be parodied in this film), it takes the almost unreachable plights of struggling actors and turns it into a universally felt feeling amongst anyone who has ambitions and wants relevancy. An awe-inspiring feat filled with spot-on contemporary satire, but sympathises deeply with the characters and the audience, there’s not much to complain about Birdman as it takes the best of what cinema can offer and flies with it.