"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" Film Review
By: Nathaniel Simpson
Without a doubt, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" is a modern masterpiece. I was very late to the game with this one, and just recently watched it for the first time at the time of writing this film review; this film blew me away in every possible way. From the direction to the cinematography to make it look like one continuous shot to the amazing acting performances that keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the film, this movie does everything right and I would say it is easily one of the best films of 2014.
The movie is centered around Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who is a former cinematic superstar turned washed-up actor. He doesn't really know what went wrong in his life, and therefore he is quite down on his luck when the film opens. Actually, the film opens up on Riggan meditating, in a sitting position while floating a couple of feet off the ground. This kind of sets the tone for how beautifully bonkers and absurd this film is. He is meditating in his dressing room at a New York Broadway theater, as he is getting ready to open his play adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", which he wrote, directed, and stars in.
He is getting ready to open the previews, which will give a glimpse to the audience what this play is going to be before the opening night reviews. However, due to a freak accident (that Riggan conveys was set up by himself), he is forced to recast the role of one of the major characters days before the first preview. When the stars align, he is able to cast Broadway star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who, come to find out, is a massive egotistical dick, and almost ruined the play multiple times due to him thinking he can do no wrong.
When this movie starts going, you can tell this is something special. From the mystical elements that make it seem like Riggan has superpowers to the continuous shots, it makes the viewer feel like they are right there in the middle of it. This is due to the perfectly crafted direction and screenplay from Alejandro G. Iñárritu. He has already proved that he is a very good filmmaker, but this shows how he is a master of crafting stories like this and can make the viewer feel different emotions that other filmmakers have not mastered quite yet. In a way, the film feels very suffocating and claustrophobic, which I have seen in numerous films throughout the history of cinema; yet, I don't think any modern movie has crafted that feeling in this way before. It's beautifully strategic and purposeful that I definitely think pays off in the end.
At the same time of having to deal with the pressure of kickstarting this play, Riggan also has to deal with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who just got out of rehab for drug addiction. He is trying to rekindle a lost relationship with her, which is what he is also trying to do with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who says they are divorced due to him threatening her with a knife and then saying "I love you" an hour later.
I think the way this movie deals with emotional distress and problems from the characters is what makes it so personable and gut-wrenching at the same time. In a way, every audience member can relate to at least one of these characters in this movie in one way or another. Iñárritu takes these very real-life characters and allows them to explore these dramatic and tragic circumstances they find themselves in, which makes them very real and pop off the screen.
This wouldn't be possible without the absolutely amazing performances by every actor in this film. Keaton gives perhaps one of the best performances in his career, playing this tragic hero in a way that the viewer can't help but root for. He is not the best man in the world, or even close to it. But, in a way, the viewer can't help but relate or feel for the poor man after everything he has been through. This is all thanks to Keaton's performance, and you can tell he put his absolute all in to every scene and performance he gives as this character. Consider the scene where he runs through New York in nothing but his tighty-whiteys. They shot this scene in the real streets of New York, as the production didn't have the budget to shut down this area. Yet he stays in character and pushes through the entire scene, sort of representing Riggan's sanity to totally be destroyed and starts this expedient downhill fall for his character.
Norton is excellent at making you hate him, especially in this film. He is arrogant, mischievous, rude, frustrating, yet as the viewer, you understand why and how he has become this version of himself. He hints at it when he is talking to Sam on a rooftop, and he said he wants to pluck out her eyes to see New York through her naive eyes. It shows how his character is a victim of his circumstance, which I think can also be said for the character of Sam. I mean, look at the things she saw and went through growing up with her two parents that have bickered and showed their true nature throughout this film. This is just the genius of Iñárritu, which I think is unmatched in this climate today.
Simply one of the best things about this movie, which I think furthers the feeling and experience of claustrophobia that is set up by the script, is the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. This film is so methodically shot in a way that makes it look like one continuous take for the most part. This is just showing the buildup of tensions and emotions that eventually explode at the film's climax and ending. It reminds me of the second half of the film of "Goodfellas", which shows Ray Liotta's character sort of spiral out of control and go crazy due to paranoia. Because of how this movie was shot, I think the filmmakers are perfectly able to capture that feeling, and sort of make the viewer go crazy watching everything unfold. I also want to say I absolutely love the realness of these shots. Consider the scene where Stone gives her fantastic dialogue against Keaton's character; the camera really gets in there into the nitty-gritty and shows the realness of human emotions and interactions. It doesn't feel cinematic, yet feels like the picture-perfect definition of cinematic shots. It's wonderful, and I can say this movie's cinematography is one of my favorites and the best I have ever seen.
It makes me wonder why I didn't watch this movie sooner or made more of an effort to watch it. This film is absolutely stellar, and I think Iñárritu delivered a masterpiece that will be studied and appreciated till the end of time. I applaud everyone that worked on this film, and I truly believe this is one of the best films of the past ten years, and quite possibly up there on my list of top ten favorite films of all time. If you haven't seen this film or are unsure about it, I implore you to give this a chance and let yourself get lost in it.