BIRDMAN (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)
Great movies, before they end, carry a few milestones for the audience. First comes the realization and immediate rush that you're watching one - this is really happening, and it's happening now. Next comes the inevitable anticipation of the crash. Life is but a bounty of disappointments, so why should this movie be any different? Finally, the moment when it either fails to stick the landing or, like some kind of intervention from God, sees its own potential through.
To watch "Birdman" is to witness the rare and elusive spectacle of something actually pulling it off, something setting a ridiculously ambitious bar for itself and clearing it. A virtuoso act of technical mastery and performance, of ridiculous confidence and ease, "Birdman" isn't just a movie you're happy to see. You're practically grateful.
This is the sort of work that inspires immediate, breathless Twitter updates in the parking lot.
In a masterstroke of casting, Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, who ruled Hollywood when he played comic book hero Birdman 20 years ago (sound familiar?), now trying to revive his career by staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway. After a falling stage light injures a costar the day before previews begin, Thomson replaces him with noted New York thespian Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, known as an actor who brings it, but also drives casts and crews crazy with his temperament and methods (again, sound familiar?).
Meanwhile, his daughter and personal assistant (Emma Stone) pesters him to build a social media presence, his producer (Zach Galifianakis) hounds him about budgets, and he hears increasingly confrontational voices in his head that may or may not be the iconic superhero he once played.
As a piece of writing from director/cowriter Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel," 21 Grams") "Birdman" is wicked and incisive, offering dark belly laughs as it exploits show business conventions and its cast's public images. As a piece of filmmaking, though, oooh boy. Spanning the period of roughly a week, Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoot "Birdman" as a series of extended scenes manipulated to resemble one fluid, unbroken take. Unlike one obvious ancestor, Hitchcock's "Rope," which sported editing tricks between shots to create the illusion of a single real-time take, "Birdman" makes no such pretense that this is really one shot. Sometimes a scene cuts when characters walk through shadows or the camera whips. Often it's invisible. I only spotted a few.
Here's the thing, though - I stopped trying to count. Iñárritu isn't dressing a shallow movie with flashy showmanship, designed to call attention to itself. Instead he hides this technique in plain sight, as if it happened from the inside out and blends right in. His camera doesn't simply observe. It doesn't simply follow. It interacts. It invites and caresses and invades. Individual scenes can last as long as five or ten minutes, but Iñárritu precisely frames each moment, even as his camera circles the actors or the actors circle it, with characters often shot in extreme, oddly canted close-up, as if they're ready to burst through the screen. One can only imagine the rigorous rehearsals as actors learned their exact blocking, everyone no doubt terrified of standing in the wrong spot or moving at the wrong time and blowing it all.
To conceive of such a thing reflects stunning ambition. To achieve it is an act of technical wizardry. To stop the audience from noticing is a gotdang miracle.
But to what end? Not for nothing does Riggan adapt Raymond Carver, of all people. Few authors are as good as Carver at diving into the lives of characters at the exact moment their plans stop working. And by the end, beyond its high wire tricks, "Birdman" reveals itself as a searingly human work about a man ready to collapse under the pressure of his failed hopes. We've all had that point, whether it's lying in bed at night or browsing a high school classmate's Facebook page, where we face the sum of who we are and worry if it adds up to much. Our blown opportunities. Our lost successes. "Birdman" takes us right to this edge, where our rapidly fading potential comes crashing down and we must decide whether or not to resign ourselves to it.
You could argue that Iñárritu's purpose behind the single faked, fluid take is to recreate the immediacy of live theater, given the movie's Broadway setting. You wouldn't be wrong. But that's not the whole story. By imbuing this world with such a sense of madcap urgency, Iñárritu holds our eyes open and forces us to reconcile this moment, right now, for these people. We're not standing outside of it. We're plunged deep in the middle. There's no safety of the camera cutting away when things get too personal or uncomfortable. And eventually, like Riggan and his dreams of career reinvention, we wonder if there's a way out.
Basically it's a convincing replica of live theater, filtered through decidedly cinematic conventions, all with a literary understanding of human suffering. Never say "Birdman" doesn't try.
There is nothing timid about this movie. No moment where it plays things safe. Featuring a towering performance from Keaton that not only rebuilds his career, but redefines it, "Birdman" isn't quite like anything you've seen this year. Isn't that what we go to the movies for?