Back In Black
By Adam Sturrock
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance (2015)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr & Armando Bo
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough
In the theatre, a firm, loud smack could be heard as Alejandro G Iñárritu knocked it out of the park. Like a tightrope act, Birdman teeters on the edge between spectacular failure and equally enthralling success, but any possible cause for collapse seems to have been rerouted in this masterclass of directing.
Riggan Thompson (Keaton) is washed up. Still living off the glory days of his superhero film-saga, Birdman, he is left floundering with the seemingly impossible task of bringing forth a Broadway play adaptation. The problem is, the packed audiences don’t arrive in their droves to witness art or the next big thing, they come to see a car crash.
He is barely recognized anymore on the streets, he is isolated from the world, but he desperately wants to defibrilate his career for the chance of getting some normalcy within his relationships with estranged friends and family. After a shotgun hire of the livewire and demanding method actor, Mike Shiner (Norton), Riggan must juggle the expectations (or lack of) set by journalists, his daughter, Sam (Stone) and keep the show afloat while his world collapses around him.
Like an extension of the drama on stage, the story melds and bends to the point where it is indiscernible as to what is real and what is fake – they may be on stage but the dialogue could easily be applied to real character’s relationships. The camera work was fluid, like a continuous shot flowing from one scene to the other. At times it can be hard to see where the cuts were made in between scenes and it helps add to this element of the actors riding by the seat of their pants in order to nail a long continuous take. It’s great that the main cast have some experience with real life stage plays so they can cope with the many lines in each scene. Actors in the film like Zach Galifianakis, especially excel, as his experience with comedy routines and memorizing hundreds of jokes definitely aids in getting each acting beat nailed down to a tee.
This momentum throughout the film adds this unique pacing to every scene like any live play would, in every corridor, on every balcony, every performance from the actors, something is always hovering ominously, trying to push the story forward. Every scene is played out brashly, with an almost mechanical efficiency, allowing so many things to be seen on screen, often as if the actions and dialogue are off the cuff. The music compliments that, with an almost improvised, scatty-drum score loosely splattered across the film – without spoiling much, they use the drum score in scenes to great effect. But almost paradoxically, the moments in which there is quiet are also given their due; some of the best scenes in the film are when it is just two actors squaring off in a tiny corner of a room for a few minutes, without the din of showbusiness trouncing in without warning.
Even if they didn’t plan it, the main characters reflect the people that play them. For example, if you were going to cast an actor who was the former main character in a superhero franchise, you would choose Michael Keaton; while George Clooney flopped with that pile of crap that was Batman and Robin, he didn’t quite fall into anonymity like Michael did afterwards. In a sense, this is a revival for both Keaton and Thomson, which paints the picture with a new layer of meaning. The same could be said for Norton, who also portrayed a comic book super-hero (The Incredible Hulk) but most importantly, as reported by the media, they are both a controlling stage diva who butts heads with their directors – he famously tried to rewrite the entire script of the aforementioned Marvel film after disliking its plot direction. Emma Stone, who plays Sam, acted in the Amazing Spiderman series and this starts to bring about a theme of the film hiring actors who had histories in big budget films, and being self-aware to attack the shallowness of big budget films as part of the plot.
The film critiques how lackadaisical the media can be when it comes to reviewing the arts – perhaps a jab from the director, himself. While Reagan endeavors to produce the best show he can, journalists refuse to give him good reviews, not because they actually think it’s bad, but because they don’t like him and have no plans for anyone (including themselves) to watch it. Keegan retorts back by ranting about how they only write with buzzwords and titles in mind over actually analyzing the techniques used. But even if the review is bad, it can end a show on poor hype alone, showing that perhaps Iñárritu is saying that people only go to what is more popular than what is actually good.
The buzz was already going across the pond, but I couldn’t truly assess it properly until now. Perhaps it might be a step to the left of what people may expect the film to be, for those expecting another superhero flick, you’ll have to leave that at the door. But if you can accept a capeless film as the smart drama that it really is, you might have a new contender for a top ten films of the year list.
What did you think of the film? Do you think Michael Keaton is back for good? Let me know in the comment section below.