Well my survey of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s directorial oeuvre stalled out around the halfway point. That would be a more impressive statement if his filmography up to this point had not been solely four films. I just ran out of time to watch Babel and Biutiful before González Iñárritu’s newest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), was released, but from what I have seen, I am (perhaps prematurely) prepared to declare him a pretentious filmmaker with a very strong eye for the technical aspect of cinema. Birdman has finally roosted in the cultural consciousness, and it is time to determine whether the film represents the hatching of a new era for the auteur; a “molting,” if you will.
Birdman follows the tumultuous run of previews for a Broadway production of an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The production was written by, directed by, and stars Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a once bright Hollywood icon best known for portraying the superhero Birdman in the 90’s. When one of the leads in his play is seriously injured four days before opening, he is forced to replace the man with notoriously difficult prestige actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), whose commitment and confidence causes Riggan to begin questioning his own abilities as an actor. The imaginary manifestation of the Birdman character, whose voice constantly belittles Riggan, is no help either.
González Iñárritu tracks the goings-on in and around the theater as opening night approaches via one long, (artificially) unbroken shot that lasts the majority of the film’s runtime. It’s the same kind if technical savvy that he showed with 21 Grams‘s non-linear structure, but again there is a question of why. The fractured in narrative in 21 Grams serves little purpose, and it is easy to say the same thing about the gimmick here, but there is more going on with the extended take.
Riggan’s mental health is already in a state of decline as the film opens; between spotty-at-best acting from one of the performers and delusions of telekinesis, he is just about ready to explode. Or perhaps implode into a mess of nerves and hallucinations. The long shot – which features significant leaps in time, without utilizing actual edits – contributes to the incoherent dream-like state of Riggan’s mind. Similarly, the drum-based score gives a sense of Riggan’s increasing frustrations as more and more begins to go wrong.
Birdman shares much in common with John Cassavetes’s excellent 1977 film Opening Night. Not only do both films feature a mentally impaired lead character preparing for a play that seems to be fated for disaster, but they both examine the destructive effects of self-image and self-respect within an industry that values neither. Riggan took a stand after Birdman 3, abandoning the character in the interest of his own personal happiness. The system punishes him for that, to the point where getting his play off the ground takes every penny Riggan has got.
It is not difficult to draw the parallels between Riggan and Keaton, but there is obviously also a close kinship between Riggan and González Iñárritu. The artistic frustration that Riggan experiences is certainly something felt by a man who strives to paint small, meaningful pictures on giant canvases. The autobiographical nature is most obvious in Riggan’s interaction with the press, who are either vapid to the point of idiocy or inexplicably vindictive. This bit of satire is the weakest aspect of the film, flailing about onscreen as if none of the criticism received by González Iñárritu has ever been warranted.
It’s a slightly oblivious misstep in an otherwise very self-aware film. Birdman seems to mark a turning point for the director, which can be seen in the feature’s overall levels of pretension. González Iñárritu will always be a filmmaker who strives to make grand statements – that will never change – but in Birdman those “profound moments” are tempered by a strong, engaging wit that isn’t afraid to turn around and mock the characters it just canonized. Even as the movie approached what felt like one of the most self-indulgent endings of the year, González Iñárritu found a way to subvert that expectation.
It is hard to determine whether the tone of Birdman is an indicator of the director’s future output. But that also isn’t what matters in an assessment of the film itself. Birdman has so much going for it – a great sense of humor; excellent performances from Keaton and Norton especially, as well as Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan; an astounding visual aesthetic courtesy of González Iñárritu and visionary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – that it should be enjoyable regardless of the filmmakers past of future. The film comes highly recommended by critics of all stripes, and I’ll add my amateur opinion to the chorus.