I apologize for the lack of reviews in the past few days, it’s been extremely chaotic. In the middle of all this chaos, I was able to drive up to the local arthouse theater and see the new film Birdman. Birdman has caught my attention for several months now, as the film is directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose best known for directing such films as Babel, 21 Grams, and 2010’s Biutiful being his last film. Birdman has also caught my attention of the cast, which includes Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, and Michael Keaton in the titular role of an actor whose trying to mount a comeback on Broadway. Keaton has stepped away from being a leading man for a few years now, and he’s slowly started to come back in the form of supporting roles in the past few years. Now, Birdman is the talk of Hollywood, with many saying that the film has high chances of being a very serious Oscar contender, with many pegging Keaton as the unofficial frontrunner for the Best Actor trophy. Well, Birdman finally expanded to theaters in Austin, and I saw the film recently. Here’s my review of Birdman.
Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a washed up actor who once played a character named Birdman years ago, but left the character when he turned down doing one of the many Birdman sequels. The choice has haunted Riggan for years, and we cut to the actor trying to mount a comeback, on Broadway of all places. He’s doing a revival of the play “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver, whose work had a profound impact on Riggan’s life and career. Everything goes wrong during the rehearsals and previews of the show. One actor is fired and another comes in, played very well by Edward Norton in one of his finest performances in years. Riggan also happens to be sleeping with one of his co-stars, played by Andrea Risenbourgh, and his daughter who is fresh out of rehab, played by Emma Stone, is Riggan’s assistant, and that’s also tumultuous. All of this pressure and paranoia occurs over a week, with the entire film taking place in and around the theater.
And what Iñárritu does with this film is that he’s done something that I’ve never seen in a film recently. He’s manipulated the way the audience views the film by making nearly the entire film look like it’s one long take. I heard about the technique over the summer when some insiders were talking about seeing the film, and that made me very curious to see how Iñárritu would pull something like this off. And what could have been used as a gimmick rather than an effective storytelling device ends up working wonders for this already unique and inspired piece of filmmaking. The one take trick that Iñárritu pulls on the audience works wonders, as you feel the stress and fear of mounting a show on Broadway, and nearly every shot of Keaton on screen feels claustrophobic and almost a little terrifying, because the man could almost snap at any minute.
And who better to shoot a film like this than Emmanuel Lubezki, whose worked with Terrence Malick in the past and is coming off his first Oscar win for his work on Gravity, directed by another brilliant Mexican filmmaker in Alfonso Cuaron. Lubezki should go two for two in the Best Cinematography field again at next years ceremony, because the work here is almost more ballsy and technically impressive than in Gravity. To be able to direct all of these actors, and navigate the streets of New York and Broadway, as well as navigate the tight corridors of backstage in a Broadway theater, is a very impressive feat. Iñárritu has made something really remarkable and extraordinary in Birdman, which is both a technical feat as well as an acting feat.
Michael Keaton gives one of the great comeback performances in Hollywood history as Riggan Thompson. A darker and more complex version that mimic’s Keaton’s real life (the irony is that Keaton has stated in numerous interviews for films that this is the one character that he related to the least), Keaton goes from being compassionate to angry, to paranoid and panicked in a matter of minutes, and the fact that he, along with his co-stars, were able to juggle all of these emotions while doing these long 15 to 20 minute takes is a really magnificent feat. As I mentioned before, Edward Norton gives one of the best performances of his career as a diva of an actor who has come in at the 11th hour to co-star in this play, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Norton’s name come up during awards season. Naomi Watts does fine work here as an actress in the play, and the girlfriend to Norton’s character, and Risenbourgh is terrific as playing the crazy girlfriend to Riggan in the film. Emma Stone gives what may be her finest performance to date on screen as the tattooed daughter of Keaton’s character. She really shines in the scenes that she shares with Keaton and most notably with Norton.
I think it’s also worth noting the terrific score in the film by Antonio Sanchez, who if you do some research is a drummer from Mexico. The film is full of these elaborate and complex drum solos that help set the tone and feel of the film better than a conventional score could do for a film that was made conventionally. But Birdman is far from conventional. For a film that is supposed to be an awards contender, this is one of the more unique and unexpected Oscar contenders I’ve seen in years, and the acting and direction make Birdman a film that could have ended up being, well, conventional Oscar bait. Birdman is one of the very best films of 2014, with Keaton my pick as of right now to win the Best Actor Oscar. However, I still haven’t seen Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, which isn’t out for another couple of weeks. Boyhood is still the film of 2014 for me, and I still don’t see any filmmaker toping that film yet, but I do give Iñárritu and company and lot of credit for coming very close to taking Richard Linklater’s masterpiece off as the best film of 2014.