BIRDMAN is the story of a washed up actor who saw his career plummet after walking away from the latest sequel in his superhero franchise twenty years ago. That actor, Riggan Thomsan, is on the verge of a possible comeback via the Broadway play he's directing, starring in, and adapted. The problem is the show isn't very good and it's just had to recast one of its main players at the start of previews.
Riggan Thomsan is played by Michael Keaton, which makes it very easy to see parallels between the character and the actor who walked away from the Batman franchise twenty years ago after doing two films. If you've followed any of the press tour, you've probably heard Keaton disavow any real kinship with Riggan. In at least one interview, he said that he doesn't think he's played a character he's identified with less than Riggan.
As crazy as it sounds, after seeing BIRDMAN, I believe him.
Riggan is a pretty good actor, but a not-pretty good human being. He's staked all of his assets on a self-indulgent vanity project. (At one point, Riggan's co-star Mike, played by Edward Norton, accuses Riggan of not even understanding what the story is about and charges that Riggan's rewritten it to give himself all of the good lines.)
At one point, he recounts a time when he was on a turbulent plane with George Clooney and he makes it sound like the greatest tragedy in life would be to die in a plane crash with the more-famous actor, as he would get all the publicity. To underscore his point, he reminds the person he's talking to that Farrah Fawcett died on the same day as Michael Jackson, the implication being that Jackson hogged all the spotlight. Keaton plays this moment superbly, giving the plane story such conviction that we're almost tempted to empathize with him until we realize just how narcissistic he is.
There never seems to be any doubt that this is all about reputation for Riggan. He might regularly trot out an old story about why he got into acting, but his greatest passion is himself. It's a wise decision not to make him an over-the-top Type A egotist, as that treatment would turn him into something of a cartoon. Instead, Riggan becomes the more likely worst-outcome of someone who once lived their life at the top of the A-list and then fell back to Earth.
Riggan regularly hears the gruff voice of his Birdman alter-ego, often taunting him, sometimes urging his worst impulses. For a while we wonder if it's real or if he's crazy, though that ambiguity is threatened as Riggan starts displaying the ability to telekinetically toss objects across a room. He eventually graduates to flying, but the film leaves open the possibility that this is all a delusion. In fact, the final moments of the film pretty much hinge on that ambiguity. (And as this is only showing on four screens, that's pretty much all I'll say about that for now.)
The film's thoroughly character-driven from start to finish. As much as the three-act structure is there, this is not a movie where you'll be overtly aware of the structure. One of the great strength's of the film is how well-rounded the supporting cast is. Edward Norton probably leaves the biggest impression as an actor who's an asshole in an entirely different way than Riggan is. Amy Ryan has only a few scenes as Riggan's ex-wife but they go a long way towards filling out Riggan and to making her character real. Emma Stone also has a nice turn as Riggan's neglected daughter, fresh out of rehab and working for her father.
You may have heard about how director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot the film to appear as if it was one continuous take. That's not entirely accurate, as there's one cutaway near the end, but otherwise, yes, this does refine the same technique that Hitchcock pioneered in Rope. Is it essential to the film? I'd say "not entirely." You could tell this story with conventional coverage and editing and it still probably would be a compelling character portrait.
Does the style add anything? Yes, for the most part. It's oddly appropriate for a film about a stage play to appear to have been shot with "no second chances" either. It does give the acting a little more theatricality on a subliminal level. Where I think it doesn't work is the overly-frequent moments where the camera seems to be right in the actor's face with a wide angle lens. It's hard not to feel like a "close-talker" and while the subliminal invasion of personal space is almost certainly a deliberate choice, some close-ups feel so distorted that it's hard to fight the urge to scream "step back!" at the camera operator.
That's more of a personal aesthetic preference, though. I tend to favor long takes with a lot of depth of field so that the audience "edits" their own close-ups in a way by deciding what part of the frame to focus on. (Spielberg uses this technique a lot.) Iñárritu definitely wants to control where your focus goes and it's a style that will probably work better for some than for others.
The visual trick would also feel less like a gimmick if the film took place in real time.
Instead, the movie covers what appears to be several weeks,
transitioning forward in time within shots. It's the same sort of
transition that you can imagine being done on a stage, which is the main
way you could justify the technique as it's deployed here.
BIRDMAN is certainly one of the more interesting films of this year, featuring one performance that's sure to get a lot of talk as we head into Oscar season. If you want to learn how to write roles that will appeal to A-list talent, see this film.