Some movies you are on the edge of your seat from suspense, fear, or just pure anticipation. My second time seeing Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the next scene I knew was coming up. Birdman, as I shall refer to it as is Alejandro G Iñárritu’s newest film starring Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson (Birdman), Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, and others. And after a second viewing, I can confidently say this was my favorite film of 2014.
By now I think most people recognize that Michael Keaton is playing a character very similar to himself in real life, Edward Norton plays himself in the way that he’s rumored to be hard to work with, and nearly the entire movie is shot to look like it is done in one take, one continuous shot with no cuts. Why did the director choose to shoot like this? Did he just want to make an experimental film or was it essential to the story? I don’t think it was. I think it elevated it to a new level of filmmaking and audience experience. In Roger Ebert’s review of the original Star Wars, he said he had an out-of-the-body experience where his mind left his body and his imagination no longer realized he was in a theater watching a movie. For me, this was my experience summed up, more than any other movie I can think of. When this happens you feel you’re part of the movie. Everything that is happening is happening to you too. So much of this is due to Iñárritu’s direction and storytelling ability. You see close up moments of true emotion struggle, you follow the characters scene to scene as an observer. There is also a great spatial awareness to this film. It takes place almost completely within a block radius of the St James Theater in New York. The audience isn’t being tricked. There are no separate sets in LA studios mixed with on location filming. I feel like I could walk into that theater and know right where I was going. Iñárritu can’t take any shortcuts here. Every room has to be prepared for shooting and the whole building feels like one big stage.
And if the shooting style of this film wasn’t enough to make a great movie, the script fits in so well into this form of storytelling. At times it is funny, meta, criticizing, or poking fun at its material. There are so many subtle comedic moments thrown into this movie like Thompson’s alter ego, Birdman, or the back and forth between characters. Before seeing this a second time, someone told me this was one of the funniest movies of the year. I couldn’t understand this until seeing it again and noticing how brilliant and self aware the script was, that so much of the dialogue, delivered perfectly, had a strong comedic punch. I initially said I was on the edge of my seat waiting for scenes I knew were coming, and they were just as great upon a second viewing, but what I appreciated more was what I didn’t remember. Expressions or certain looks that have huge ramifications, like Thompson looking at the light fixture right before it falls on one of the cast members who couldn’t act at all. Or so many of the one-liners and dialogue that I forgot. Hearing that this movie was nominated for best original screenplay, I didn’t think it deserved to win, but now it might be my favorite one, even edging out The Grand Budapest Hotel. Once I inevitably see it a third time and then again, I’m sure I’ll find something else that I love about this movie.
The commentary on blockbuster vs indie, film vs theater, and critic vs actor was another part I thought was written wonderfully and often times painfully true. One of Keaton’s best scenes comes when he tells off a renowned theater critic at a bar because she has already deemed his play terrible without seeing it because of his reputation as a Hollywood actor and not doing anything of real talent. How he defends himself and attacks her is not only funny, but true of how I see some critics. They just put labels on things and don’t judge them on what they are or their craft and structure. That is why I don’ want to call my post reviews or myself a critic. I am a fan who loves talking about movies and wants to share my opinion. So if I ever seem superficial in my *coughs* reviews, please tell me. The confrontation between Keaton and Norton as different kinds of actors interested me in how on stage the actors spill their hearts out, and in film they hide behind a facade and or mask. I loved this dynamic, and while I like films more than theater, the debate over them is fascinating to explore in this movie. Especially when you have Thompson who wants to do something meaningful and artistic, and Birdman who loves the attention of a Hollywood blockbuster that grosses millions.
I haven’t really touched on the character of Thompson and the journey he goes through. We are first introduced to him levitating in his dressing room. This automatically catches off guard, especially if you haven’t seen the trailer. Does he have really have telekinesis? We see him destroy a room without touching almost anything. But then the camera pans to Galifianakis when he enters the room and once we see Keaton again, he’s destroying the room with his hands. After a scene where he flies through New York, he lands outside the theater without anyone noticing a flying man, but then we see a taxi driver get out of his car and ask him to pay for the ride. So no, right? Watch the last shot and tell me yes or no? At the core, I think this movie is about Thompson getting back to what he loves. He knew he wanted to be an actor when a playwright saw one of his performances in school and sent him a cocktail napkin that said “Thanks for giving an honest performance.” But somewhere along the line, he lost those roots and played a superhero so he could be loved. His ex wife tells him he confused love for admiration. He chose to have his 15 minutes of fame, but then wants to become a “real actor”. But does he really? Does he just want to feel loved and relevant again? Everyone seems to think so, except for him. In the end, he does both.
Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner also had a very well developed and interesting character. It’s known that Norton himself is a method actor difficult to work with and Shiner is similar in that respect. But he also has issues in his own life that make him this way. Is this true for Norton? I don’t know. Shiner can only feel, be alive when he is on stage. Off the stage, he can’t perform or seemingly make any friends, he takes his work seriously not just because he loves being an actor, but because that’s his life. Like the people in Inception who only live in dreams. This of course makes him difficult to work with, but makes for a very captivating character with an Oscar worthy performance. I wish his story would have had a more completed arc at the end, he was forgotten and we never were able to see him after the opening night of the play.
The music accompanying this movie also added lots to the film as a whole. There are many scenes of no music, soon to be interrupted by a drum solo. This makes the movie seem almost like a jazz session, where it’s very improvisational and off the cusp much like the story is. You don’t know what’s coming next, and you get the feeling that the actors don’t either. There are no noticeable cuts where they have time to prepare for a singular scene just to go on to another. They act in the moment, reacting scene by scene reacting to the situation surrounding them. I can see this being appealing to fans of the theater. It’s the most theater like movie I’ve seen.
I’ve said this was my favorite film of 2014, so naturally it is my pick for best picture at The Academy Awards. Give it time, but I think this film could have a prominent spot on my all time favorite movies list.