In every pored over frame of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s extraordinary new film Birdman (2014), we feel the pain of washed up movie star Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) failings as a father, of the hollowness of his marriage’s disintegration and of the existential torment so intrinsically linked with his yearning for artistic credibility. Known primarily for his portrayal of unconventional superhero Birdman in a trio of obsolete outings, Riggan has poured all his resources into a one-shot stage venture, writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver stories. But he’s up against it as his past ‘glories’ threaten to overshadow him, whilst an array of acidic doubters lay in wait for a seemingly inevitable, humiliating failure.
Going behind the scenes over the course of a few days in the lead up to the show’s debut, Inarritu’s film, which he co-wrote with a trio of screenwriters, becomes a remarkably vivid, candid and mesmerizingly intimate portrait of Riggan, his co-workers and those closest to him, all of whom hover in and out of frame. It’s this visual approach adopted by Inarritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki that is truly remarkable. They’ve produced a fluid, often graceful, frequently kinetic, punishingly real cinematic immersion. In some senses their realisation is visionary through its means of prolonging the illusion of a continuing, single shot that transcends time and space, day and night. Hitchcock, though lacking the technology, made a noteworthy attempt at rigging prolonged shots in Rope (1948), whilst Aleksandr Sokurov created a work of art with his glistening jewel of perfection Russian Ark (2002). Even the horror genre has seen attempts at pulling off the single take shot conceit, with Gustavo Hernandez’s passable Silent House (2010) quickly mirrored by an inevitable American remake a year later.
Inarritu’s film never draws undue attention to its modus operandi and aesthetic approach. The flawless ensemble of actors flowing in and out of scenes around Riggan maintains the sense of naturalism. Keaton, in a gift of a late-career role, makes every post a winner, pouring sadness, hope, futility and mortal terror into Riggan as he rides rapidly swaying fortunes. Edward Norton is almost as good as the repellent but hilariously conceited Mike Binder, a hotshot actor drafted in at late notice. Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Zack Galifianakis (in a rare straight role) are all exceptional, whilst even the problematic Emma Stone rises to the level of the material as Riggan’s difficult daughter. Punctuated with razor-sharp dialogue, withering exchanges and impassioned pleas, the film eclipses Inarritu’s past work, including his star making debut Amores Perros (2000) and his last film, the transcendently bleak Biutiful (2010). His films have always been distinguished by their clever construction (mostly thanks to screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s work on his first three) and here he uses the enigmatic, internal haranguing of the sinister yet talismanic Birdman inside Riggan’s head as the multiple voices of ghosts past, an impinged-upon conscience, the cold-hearted realist and the crooked fatalist in us all. This is what Inarritu’s masterful ultimately film boils down to: metaphors explicit, oblique and strange, imbued with the sputtering hopes and dreams of the individual and wrapped around an indelibly humane core. Destined to be considered a classic.