Rarely does a film leave me speechless. When a film ends, I want to talk about it; I can only think of Black Swan as the other film that left me in a trance as the credits rolled. And now I can add Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) to that list. Going into it I knew nothing, not even the premise which I am only going to talk about in the vaguest of terms here because it is a rare gift these days to be able to walk into a film knowing nothing and it a gift I want to share. (The unexpected virtue of ignorance indeed.) Besides I feel like I could write about the plot of Birdman and you still wouldn’t know what it is really about.
What I can talk about are the performances. I am going to admit something terrible here: I have only seen Michael Keaton in 2 films: Jackie Brown and Jack Frost. Yes, the movie about the snowman that comes to life. Yes it makes me cry.Even without seeing him in hardly any other films I know that this is a career changing performance. He is incredible. When Keaton is on screen he demands attention despite the rich and complex set around him. And the set is brilliant, there is so much to look at that at some points I was physically moving my head to get a better look at the screen. But I would always come back to watching Keaton. He plays Riggan with such a powerful intensity that it is hard to look away-and you don’t want to. This man is damaged, a product of his environment and the times we live in. Rarely are we taken away from Riggan’s perspective, but the brief moments when the story shifts only serves to make his absence more noticeable.
The only actor potentially on par with Keaton in this film is Edward Norton. I have not been this in love with him since Fight Club (minus the fact that I have still yet to see American History X). This time he gets to be Tyler Durden, he is the swaggering, confident male to Keaton’s fragile, frantic one He explodes on the screen, making his presence felt even as Keaton demands attention. Some of the best scenes in Birdman are the ones of he and Keaton acting together, both in a film sense and in the play within a play sense. They have incredible chemistry, building off of each others’ energies and Norton brings each scene to its edge before it comes crashing down.
The performance that surprised me the most though was Emma Stone. I like Emma Stone the person more than Emma Stone the actress because I don’t think she has been spectacular in anything I have seen her in previously. Birdman changed all that. She more than holds her own with the two male leads and creates some great moments with both actors. She is able to capture both a vulnerability and intensity as Sam, Keaton’s daughter. Out of all the characters in the film I found myself feeling the most pathos towards her. Riggan may be struggling to hold on, but it is Sam-and the other females around him- who have reaped the consequences. Also, another shout out has to go to Zach Galifianakis whose performance is so understated I didn’t recognize until halfway through the film.
That is the magic of Birdman, it is a completely immersive film experience. I didn’t notice the long takes until my friend pointed it out to me, but once you notice it, the long cannot be unseen. You find yourself in a precarious balance of paying attention to the story, following the sweeping movements of the camera as it darts around the St. James theater, and then waiting to see where the cut is so you you can start all over again. This film does that in numerous ways: it pulls you in only to abruptly remind you that you are watching a film that has some pretty fantastical elements despite its reality.
The music helps in that way too. Antonio Sanchez’s pounding, rhythmic percussive score is the beat that keeps the film going. As the camera glides through scenes following characters’ movements, the score adds a sense of urgency, a pace. It tells us the stakes of the scene without telling us how to feel. Also, there are some truly magical moments that bring the score into the film itself using one of my favorite cinematic techniques (and making me laugh out loud with joy). Very few scores have ever sounded or even felt like this one.
I loved everything about Birdman, but mostly how it feels so different from anything I’ve ever seen before. Every frame was a masterpiece. Also, many films might take place in New York City, but rarely has a film captured the feeling of what it means to live and work and find your way there. Go see it, there’s really nothing more I can say.
Final Words (with some mini spoilers)
- I love how this film mentions/makes fun of pop culture. One of my favorite scenes has to be close to the beginning when they’re looking for replacement actors and they mention people who are all tied up in big franchises including Michael Fassbender, Woody Harrelson, and Jeremy Renner (“that guy from The Hurt Locker”…”They put him in a cape too?”).
- Loved the way they tied in the play within a play and how you knew what was going to happen a moment before it did.
- This film is great (duh you just read my review about how much I liked it), but I don’t think it will get much love come awards season time unless they’re technical awards. It’s just too weird for The Academy. Remember, they voted for The King’s Speech over The Social Network (Yes, I’m still not over it).
- Mike: Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.
(Okay so there are so many quotes I loved in Birdman, I wish I wrote them all down because I can’t find some of the best ones online.)