You’ve got to admire the sheer dedication to technical precision behind Alejandro Iñárritu’s latest film. Aside from a few short shots near the beginning and end of the film, Birdman unravels as one near-continuous take, a remarkable feat of set engineering that required the entire cast and crew to rehearse each and every scene down to an exact art.
The fruit of their labours is a bold and dizzying masterpiece that recalls the technical spectacle of Gravity’s opening sequence only spread across two-hours, and like Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winner, Birdman’s beautifully layered story is never overshadowed by the practical innovation, Iñárritu effectively utilising the intricate camerawork to submerge the audience in his protagonists inescapable reality.
In the film we charge through the tight, cavernous halls of a crumbling New York theatre in pursuit of the equally dishevelled Michael Keaton, whose faded Hollywood star, Riggan Thompson, is attempting to revive his career by staging a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short stories.
This relentless stream of consciousness, coupled with the frenetic jazz beat that frequently accompanies scenes, gifts the film with a ferocious tempo that both reflects Thompson’s increasingly fraught desperation to keep hold of his sanity amid continually mounting obstacles and evokes the raw kinetic energy of live theatre as characters constantly intersect and react off of each other’s presence. In this way, Birdman feels like a thriving, pulsating and thoroughly unique slice of real life, and that’s not something that can often be said.
It needs this explosive pacing, too, in order to pack in the myriad themes and well-drawn subplots that Iñárritu has deftly weaved into the story. Set around a theatre production where everything seems determined to go wrong (onset accidents, drunk actors, unexpected erections to name but a few of the calamities that plague rehearsals), Birdman combines elements of dark farce with a blackly comic takedown of the entertainment industry with Keaton playing the familiar role of a washed-up actor who first found fame in the 1990s starring in a trilogy of superhero themes based around the title character.
Delve deeper, however, and you’ll find that Iñárritu is also exploring big themes concerning the pitfalls of ego, artistic integrity and the nature of celebrity in the social media age. Thompson encompasses all of these ideas: a broke, divorced, overweight and balding actor with a daughter fresh out of rehab (played by a brilliantly acerbic Emma Stone), who risks everything he has to adapt the work of the writer who inspired him in the hope it will help him regain past glories.
As his chances of success begin to look increasingly remote, Thompson starts to suffer a mental breakdown as his thoughts are plagued by the spectre of his cinematic alter-ego who degrades him for wasting his time on a bunch of “pussy” theatre actors. In film, the pursuit of the American dream inevitably ends in the dreamers downfall, and here the Icarus-loving Thompson is ultimately guilty of flying too close to the sun.
The performances are uniformly superb. Keaton’s turn, in particular, proves the casting of the former Batman-actor was no meta publicity stunt as his portrayal of Thompson provides an engaging and bewildering presence throughout, believable as both a narcissistic actor consumed with thoughts of his own legacy and as a fragile middle-aged man struggling to keep his life together. Edward Norton likewise gives the performance of his career so far as pompous method-actor-from-hell Mike Shiner, striding onto set at the last minute with the swagger of a star who knows he is box office gold, but, like Thompson, his bravado masks some deeply personal insecurities.
Undoubtedly a technical triumph of unparalleled precision and commitment, Birdman has a relentless pace and a fierce energy that makes scenes leap off the screen with life. Backed by outstanding performances from Keaton, Norton and Stone, Iñárritu’s latest is deserving of every accolade it receives this awards season and probably more besides.
Running time: 119 mins; Genre: Comedy/Drama; Released: 1 January 2015;
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu; Screenwriter: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo;
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Click here to watch the trailer for Birdman