To what degree can a few seconds impact an entire film? In his review of Thelma and Louise, Roger Ebert argues that the climactic shot ends a few seconds too soon, and as such robs the film as a whole of just enough power that it doesn’t get **** from him. And in the case of Birdman, there are a few moments, which add up to less than a minute of the film’s two hours, which haunt me enough that I cannot rank it higher (as of this writing, I put it at #8 for the year). (Addendum: after further meditation, I’ve decided that these elements are not quite as damaging as I first surmised, so I’m bumping my score up a point, and the film up to #6.)
But at the same time, so much of the film is so good–so well directed and so richly acted–that even considering those troubling moments, I cannot rank it less than ****. One could fairly dispute whether it says anything truly new about the nature of acting and about role-playing in general, but it whatever it says, it says it in a tremendously entertaining fashion.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) has fallen on hard times. Decades ago, he was a star, playing the superhero Birdman in a trilogy of blockbusters. Now, he’s sinking everything into a Broadway adaptation–adapted, directed by, and starring himself–of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His trials multiply; a hated co-star is injured by a falling light (which he claims to have brought down psychokinetically), his girlfriend and co-star, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) tells him she’s pregnant; his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict, resents his failures as a father; and when he secures the services of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a much-respected actor, he discovers that Mike is as difficult as he is talented.
As the preview period draws to a close and opening night looms, further troubles beset Riggan and the production; New York Times critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), disgusted by what she sees as Riggan’s (and other Hollywood celebrities’) usurpation of the theater, informs him of her intent to pan his show, thus condemning it to an early close; locked outside during one preview, Riggan is forced to run through Times Square in his underwear, becoming a social-media smash in the process; during another, Mike turns out be drinking real alcohol onstage, and when Riggan replaces it with water, he disrupts the performance. But worst of all, Riggan hears the voice of Birdman in his head, as time passes growing louder and more insistent, one moment hounding him for his failures, another telling him to ignore the doubters and become a star once again.
I confess, I’m having a hard time writing about Birdman. Some great films (like Dear White People) invite you to think about them, puzzle them over, and analyze what they’re saying. Others, like Birdman, put the experience first, or explore their themes in a way where trying to describe takes far more time than just watching the damn thing. Structurally, Birdman, for almost its entire length, tries to evoke the feeling of one long, continuous shot, and the camerawork tends to be subjective, swooping and careening from vantage to vantage, often as if it were peering over the characters’ shoulders.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is perhaps the best of the year. It takes the techniques he developed for Gravity (winning an Oscar in the process) and puts them to far more interesting use. Here, time ebbs and flows unlike any film I can think of (the closest equivalent would be Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, which was aiming for a kind of ghostly omniscience rather than Birdman’s immediacy), the line between fantasy and reality is freely crossed, day fades into night, which fades into day, and so forth. The film mostly takes place inside one theater and the surrounding block or two, but the ever-moving camera makes the film’s environment feel so much more expansive and engaging.
And the camerawork also enhances the theatrical nature of the film; as a thespian, I can say it really does capture that feeling you get of stepping out on stage in front of an audience, the sense of being on the spot, of being at once completely vulnerable and completely in charge. And when the camera leaves the confines of the theater, we get the feeling of the heart of a big city, as full of energy as it is of anonymity–a kind of crowded loneliness. (This feeling is enhanced by the sound mixing, which is exceptionally good.) Lubezki probably deserves to win the Oscar a second time (I’d accept Roger Deakins winning a long overdue Oscar for Unbroken, but objectively, Lubezki almost certainly deserves it), but I have no idea if he will or not–or how this is going to go over with the Academy.
Can they ignore the cinematography? Can they ignore Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s direction, which infuses the material with so much energy and life? Increasingly, I realize that great direction and great cinematography are innately linked, and for the Academy to nominate one and not the other would be…illogical? Human illogic is at the heart of Birdman; the title of the Carver book and play, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, refers to the seemingly illogical force–love–which drives so much of human nature (Interstellar, which should also receive substantial Academy attention, has a very different view point on love).
In the final scene of the show-within-a-film, a character played by Riggan finds his signifcant other (played by Lesley, played by Naomi Watts) in bed with another man (played by Mike), and pulls a gun, lamenting that he has always been the one who must strive, who must beg for love–and then turns the gun on himself. This mirrors Riggan’s own desperate desire to be accepted, to be admired, to be loved–and how his desperation ultimately drives those who try to love him away. As the voice of Birdman grows louder in his head and his perceived displays of superpowers grow more and more grandiose, Riggan realizes that, if he is doomed, he will make his doom a spectacular one.
Which raises my next question: can the Academy ignore Michael Keaton here? He’s never so much as been nominated, but here, playing a role which seems to be him, and yet is so unlike him, he delivers a performance of such ferocity that it leaps to the top of my own list. If his performance were mere hamming, the film would be a failure, but it’s so much more than that. The film’s ultimate commentary on actors and roles is that most actors seem to be somehow uncomfortable in their own skin–at the risk of being incredibly blunt, it almost seems as if Birdman is the real self, and Keaton’s manic visage is the mask; it recalls Rorschach, whose real self was a runty loner, but who became an unswerving proponent of vigilante justice when masked.
And every aspect of Riggan’s agony–the easily frayed temper, the harder and harder to control flights of fancy, the sense of anger, the sense of aging, the sense of guilt–is put across sublimely. Keaton does not excuse or glorify Riggan’s failings as a human being; we learn that years earlier, he assaulted his wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), but within an hour was telling her he love her. At another point, we learn, when their marriage irrevocably broke down, he walked into the ocean, bent on suicide–and it was the stings of jellyfish which drove him back to shore. Riggan, we realize, is a man of passionate and often dangerous impulses.
And Keaton is entirely believable at showing that. His bemused grin and popped eyes are put to top-notch use here, both in portraying Riggan’s explosive angst and his compulsive fantasism; the eyes pop with horror and with wonder. And his voice rings authoritatively, cracks in humiliation, hisses in disgust, and as Birdman, rumbles with gravelly nihilism. It is a towering performance, and honestly, possibly the best I’ve seen since 2012’s two-punch of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master (another portrait of a man whose very nature threatens to destroy him) and Denis Lavant in Holy Motors (another portrait of an identity subsumed in roleplay).
Emma Stone should not go unnoticed either; she starts the film on a sour note (which I’ll get to late), but as the film progresses, our initial impression of her as a “fragile little fuck-up” (as she is called in the film) dissolves into something more, for me at least, haunting. Perhaps it’s because Sam reminds me of people I’ve known, both in attitude and in appearance, but Stone perfectly captures that spirit which is cavalier and sympathetic, angry and sad, loving and loathing. Sam resents Riggan’s absenteeism and his rather pathetic attempts to make up for it, but pities him and ultimately loves him, and when she blows up at him, informing him of his fundamental selfishness and terror in the face of oblivion, it’s less an act of contempt than an act of desperate love.
Later, when she shares with him a method of therapy learned in rehab (ticking off the years of the Universe’s existence on a roll of toilet paper), it’s a subtle moment, easily overlooked, and yet Stone plays it with the perfect balance of boredom, empathy, and humor. And to Sam goes the film’s lovely, ambiguous final moment, which suggests…well, what does it suggest? That fantasy has won out? That optimism, even delusional optimism, is contagious? Or is it just the moment? You could argue it, or you could simply glory in the sheer joy in Stone’s face as she looks skyward, her eyes filling with awe, her smile almost a reflex in the face of transcendence. She deserves as much recognition as Keaton.
Rounding out the trio of truly masterful performances, Edward Norton takes an essentially disgusting character and makes him into an (not as malignant as some, but certainly not benign) embodiment of the paradox which excuses abhorrent behavior by great artists. I’m not totally sure if we’re meant to consider Mike as great an actor as the other characters do; a lot depends on how you feel about Norton himself. His real-life reputation for being difficult is reflected (and, I hope, exaggerated) in Mike’s demanding, often cruel nature.
Mike impresses Riggan right off the bat with his talent and his foreknowledge of the material, but before long we see his ugly side; he makes a crude comment about Sam’s rear-end, strips naked in the costume shop without regard for those around him, and when in bed with Lesley onstage, tries to have sex with her–a scene which many will find quite disturbing, not least because Mike then leaps out of the bed–and in front of the audience–with an obvious erection. I’ve heard it argued that the scene is misogynistic, but Lesley’s humiliation is so plain, and Mike’s sociopathy so firmly established, that it hardly seems so.
And yet Mike is more than just acting talent wrapped around a rotten core. He is, on some level, painfully aware of his faults, initially declining to pursue Sam because, offstage, he is hamstrung by reality, by his limitations. Onstage, he is capable of virtually anything–and is brilliantly acclaimed for it–but offstage, he’s a brooding, bullying, obnoxious, malcontented prick, and if there’s a type that Edward Norton can play better than just about anyone, it’s that. Without sugarcoating Mike’s unsavory nature, Norton makes him fully human, and it’s a shame that he largely disappears from the film’s final third, because he’s just about as good as Keaton and Stone. (He’s #1 in my Supporting Actor rankings, though this has been a bad year for the category.)
The rest of the cast is a little more of a mixed bag, though no one is less than good. Watts, especially on first viewing, may seem shrill and over-the-top, but on reflection she does quite aptly capture Lesley’s high-strung, emotionally fragile nature, and there’s a very funny scene where she bad-mouths Sam, unaware she’s just a few feet away. Riseborough is quite entertaining, giving Laura a spacily theatrical nature (which tiptoes into obliviousness at times), and while the script doesn’t give her much to do either (she seems to break up with Riggan partway through and only appears a couple of times afterwards), she makes good use of her screentime.
Ryan, aside from one scene where her delivery seems weirdly off-pace, is a welcome grounded presence in this mad world; her continuing love for Riggan is as obvious as her inability to deal with him. On my first viewing, I found the character of Tabitha to be overdone and a rather cheap bit of critic-mocking; now I see her exaggerated vendetta against Riggan as being in tune with the film’s exaggerated tone, and Duncan savors her acidic syllables, juxtaposing them with her calm, creamy voice to make her small role a memorable one.
I’ve completely forgotten to mention Zach Galifianakis as Jake, Riggan’s long-suffering agent, who is constantly told to handle daunting problems as if he were some kind of magician. Galifianakis takes the pathetic nature he’s displayed so often before and stuffs it in a suit; Jake is capable, but on a fundamental level he’s something of a worm, and Galifianakis makes him just sympathetic enough that you don’t despise him. He holds his own in the face of the great leading trio.
The script, by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo, is both the root of much of the film’s greatness and many of its weaknesses. It provides the foundation for several great performances and some stunning filmmaking, but it leaves several characters, and a few plot threads, underdeveloped. Thematically, I’m not sure if it really says anything new–it’s really Iñárritu’s direction that makes it fresh–but at the same time, there’s some strong dialogue (and moreover, if there were any lines that struck me the wrong way, they have not stuck in my memory), and any script that gives rise to such a film must be good by some measure. It will likely get an Oscar nomination, but if it did not, I would mind it a deal less than if it missed out in Picture or Director.
Antonio Sanchez’s drum score matches the film’s off-kilter mood; I can only think offhand of one moment where music and film really perfectly synced up (at one particularly tense point, the drumming reaches something of a fever pitch), but it’s a good score, and well supplemented by classical selections and some lovely orchestral pieces by Joan Valent and Victor Stumpfhauser. Kevin Thompson’s production design and Albert Wolsky’s costumes are quite good, in a unflashy way.
Now, as to those moments which bothered me so. I’ve asked others about them, and for the most part have found myself the only one particularly displeased by any of them. The scenes in question:
- Near the very beginning, Riggan gets a video call from Sam, who’s buying flowers from a Korean flower-seller; when he asks for a certain species based on their pleasant smell, she says “Everything smells like kimchee!” and abruptly ends the call. Now, this scene could be chalked up to Sam being nasty at that particular moment, but the ‘kimchee’ line still feels gratuitous.
- A bit later, Riggan is speaking with reporters, one of whom is Japanese (and clearly knows little English); when he talks about his refusal to do Birdman 4, the Japanese reporter replies, in what seemed to me a rather exaggerated accent, “Birdman 4?! You do Birdman 4?!” This scene appears in the trailer, no less, and I saw it ad nauseam for several months (they really should have cut another trailer). In the actual film, the scene is fairly brief, and on further meditation, I’m not sure it’s really that problematic, it just, like the ‘kimchee’ line, feels like a bit of authorial carelessness.
- After Mike attempts to have sex with Lesley onstage, she goes to her dressing room in tears, followed by Laura, and Riggan drops by to give Lesley a quick pep talk. After he leaves, Laura laments that Riggan has never said anything so kind to her, and Lesley repeats his words. Laura then kisses Lesley, and after a tentative start, they begin making out, which is soon interrupted by a knock at the door. Again, the moment is less offensive, per se, than it is gratuitous (and confusing–on my first viewing, I assumed the implication was that Laura and Lesley were secretly sleeping together).
These moments aren’t enough to diminish the overall greatness of the film, but they took me out of it, however briefly, and are worth mentioning. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
At one point, nearer the end of the film than the beginning, a man on the street is heard screaming one of Shakespeare’s greatest soliloquies:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
What is the significance of this speech, in context? Does it reflect Riggan’s self-destructive bent? Is it the appropriation of Shakespearean language by a man who might otherwise merely say, “The end is nigh”? Being as it is from Macbeth, a play so feared by superstitious thespians that merely mentioning its name is taboo, does it refer to the troubled-plagued production? Does it reflect some internal diminution of the theater to that insignificant “sound and fury”? Or, like the ending, is it a moment which feels right, yet resists being broken down into purely representational terms?
Birdman does not answer many of its own questions, being from the vantage of those who are better equipped to ask than answer. It is not a perfect film, but neither is it “a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” It’s a showcase for some of the best acting and filmmaking I’ve seen all year. And that may be all I need.