Director Alejandro González Iñárritu made a name for himself with a series of multi-stranded, seriously serious films, most notably Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Biutiful. The Mexican’s latest work is said to be somewhat of a departure, lighter in tone, set around one single location, and with some actual (whisper it) jokes. While on the surface it might seem a new leaf for Iñárritu, look a bit closer and you can see the same traits running through his previous films.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan, a washed up actor famous for playing a nineties superhero, who is trying to reclaim his reputation with a serious play on Broadway. A fully paid up misanthrope, Riggan spends his days trying to shepherd his failing play into something coherent, all the while having to contend with the hotpot of demanding women in his life. His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is a recovering addict trying to stabilise herself as his assistant, Lesley (Naomi Watts) is the insecure lead of his production and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) an unfortunate afterthought in the world of Riggan.
Yet it is Edward Norton as Mike who really rocks the boat. A last minute replacement/saviour, Mike is a sleazy yet talented hotshot who plays by his own rules and threatens to steal Riggan’s show from underneath him. Iñárritu films his cast almost solely in one location, a New York theatre, utilising the claustrophobia and endless corridors to dazzling effect. Shot in a frantic, marauding style by the virtuoso DP Emmanuel Lubezki, the film is edited to appear as one singular take, the camera essentially buzzing off the energy of the actors, much like a John Cassavetes film.
This is the best part of the film; the sheer energy of the film-making and the actors. It has been noted that the extended take can bring about a sense of hypnosis and disorientation in the viewer; recently we have seen the excellent True Detective utilise a breathless 6 minute tracking shot, and Enter The Void had a similarly feverish, dreamlike feel to it. The improvisational feel of the film is emboldened by a raw, jazzy percussion soundtrack, echoing the snappy action on screen. The actors look like they are having a ball as well; Keaton is the hangdog delusional keeping things glued together, but Norton is the real star, turning in one of his best performances in years.
Audiences will leave the cinema feeling dazed alright. The zing of the cinematography, the screwball playfulness of the performances – it is for a large part a real treat. Yet when the dust settles and the last flashes of lightning have dissipated, what are we really left with? This film has four writers on it, a troubling sign, and it shows. The basic concept, of a tired actor trying to reinvent himself, is a tired concept in itself. Meta-narratives have been overdone in recent years and we have a much more interesting, poignant film about theatrical delusions in Synechdoche New York, Charlie Kauffman’s messy tragicomedy.
When we look closer at the characters, not many of them really stand up behind the hubris of the performances. Riggan is essentially a bit of a sexist pig who gets given an unearned penitence at the end. Then we have a whole host of talented actresses pushed to the wayside in order to validate Riggan’s oh-so-tortured existence. Iñárritu, meanwhile, has not really changed so much; he still has a habit of filling his films with wall to wall profundity. Not a scene goes by when a character doesn’t give some kind of overwrought speech about their secret wound. We are, after all, all human beings with feelings.
So, Birdman. As a piece of film making, as a playground of performance, a real dazzler. Just don’t think about it too much.