Sunday, February 22, 2015

Birdman (The unexpected virtue of ignorance)

When the credits started rolling, I noticed something very peculiar – the rest of the audience were just sitting, anxiously hopeful that director Alejandro González Iñárritu had left some sort of Easter egg that would answer this highly enthralling film’s central question. But something in me knew that no such release would come – Birdman isn't interested in ‘tying up all those little loose strings’ for its viewer. Instead, it sole purpose is to take you on an often weird, often jarring, often frustrating, but consistently brilliant cinematic journey that is impossible to clearly define (the biggest compliment I can give a film).

I’m extremely happy I decided not to do any prior reading up on Birdman – I heard the rumours that ‘Keaton is exceptional’ and that the film was ‘a technical achievement’, but little did I know that these pieces of praise would just scratch the surface of what I was about to experience.

At its core (if you can identify one), the film is about a slightly ‘has-been’ Hollywood actor, Riggan Thomas (best known for his role as the superhero ‘Birdman’) who has one last chance to redeem his career (and himself) via a Broadway play he is directing and starring in. Whilst everything seems to be running quite smoothly at first, a freak accident during rehearsal puts one of the cast members in hospital, putting Keaton and company on a mission to find and prepare a suitable replacement, just days before the play’s opening night on Broadway. As luck may have it, they managed to find someone that seems to fit the bill perfectly in Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton). But although it seems that all crises have been averted, a series of new obstacles and confrontations once again puts the play in jeopardy, with Keaton desperately holding on to his last shot at personal redemption.


One of the standout aspects of the film is undeniably the characteristic cinematic style employed, intended to create the illusion of a single, continuous shot. This idea was based on Iñárritu’s realisation that ‘we live our lives with no editing’.  It’s difficult to explain precisely what an amazing achievement the cinematography is, the impact of which can be felt throughout the film’s running time: On a basic level, it creates a constant sense of anxiousness or uneasiness that perfectly mimics the mind-set of the film’s troubled protagonist. On a deeper level, it creates closer proximity between the audience and the film’s events, successfully amplifying the variety of emotions experienced and thus ensuring for a highly engrossing, realistic movie. Be warned: The film takes you on a high-speed rollercoaster of emotional variation: sometimes feeling frustrated, other times filled with angst, here and there you might feel some empathy, and sometimes, even a few moments of happiness. By the end of it all, you’ll feel exhausted, but exhilarated by the immense  achievement that you just experienced.

"It’s difficult to explain precisely what an amazing achievement the cinematography is, the impact of which can be felt throughout the film’s running time."

All of this would of course not be possible without an amazing cast and in the case of Birdman, it’s clear how much attention was given to ensure that every line of dialogue spoken was executed perfectly. Keaton and Norton truly deserves all the nominations they have received during this award season and some of the film’s most powerful scenes are definitely where Norton and Keaton are at opposite ends with each other. That’s not saying that the rest of the cast should be dismissed however: Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis all play their parts very convincingly and help to increase the emotional spectrum that the film delivers on.  

The third stand-out aspect of the film is the deceivingly simple score, consisting entirely of drums and classical pieces. The out-of-sync, intentionally jarring drum work from Antonio Sánchez might at first seem like a completely random choice, but you soon learn to appreciate how it’s used (much like the cinematography) to accentuate the protagonist’s volatility and instability. It also manages to contribute to the film’s undeniable sense of authenticity and is a satirical nod to the way drums are used to highlight comedic punch lines.


The question then is though: Is Birdman merely a technical showcase for Iñárritu? Those who are critical of the film might feel that the film ‘does a lot well’, but lacks a singular focus regarding what it is trying to say. One of the reasons why some audience goers might experience the film this way is because it does not surrender to one genre classification. Good luck to the video store clerk trying to put this one in the appropriate genre rack - This part drama, part sci-fi, part dark comedy, part psychological thriller refuses to be labelled and for some, this might be to the detriment of the film. For me, however, it’s the final proof of the achievement that is Birdman. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more refreshing, stimulating and engrossing film experience, and one that can only truly be appreciated with various re-watchings. Not only is Birdman my favourite film of 2014, but it’s right up there with my favourite film of all-time.

"This part drama, part sci-fi, part dark comedy, part psychological thriller refuses to be labelled."


Highlight: The scenes with Stone and Norton on the rooftop of Broadway feels noticeably out-of-place with the rest of the film. But of because of that, are hauntingly beautiful and memorable.