Telluride 2014: Iñárritu's 'Birdman' Glides to Cinematic Excellence
by Alex Billington
August 31, 2014
Does our ego control us, or do we control our ego? Where can it/where does it take us? Will we fly or will we fall? Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film Birdman is easily lovable for many reasons - from its honest characters and original story to the technical prowess behind the lens and many layers of its style. It's also one of those films where there are so many moments, so many lines, so many scenes where as soon as I've watched them, I want to pause, rewind, and watch them again to delve deeper into the context. Birdman is a sensational, extraordinary creation of artistic elegance that examines the great struggle of growing older.
Birdman might not be the film everyone is expecting to see, especially after the trailers and marketing so far. But the film itself is still miraculous, an exceptional cinematic work that transcends stage and screen. It speaks volumes about creative people, our ego and the voices inside our head, and how we struggle to find a place on this Earth as we begin to grow older and realize we are only on this planet for such a short amount of time. What do we make of that time? How do we differentiate ourselves? As with any very intelligent film, it doesn't serve answers on a platter so much as hide them in every frame, from the set dressing to dialogue.
In the film, Michael Keaton plays washed up actor Riggan Thomson, who was once a famous movie star after playing Birdman in movies in the 90s. However, now he's someone who some actors don't respect, and apparently all that anyone knows him for is, of course, Birdman - a superhero character that is the voice in his head. So he decides to write, direct and star in a Broadway play adapted from a Raymond Carver book. The narrative takes place over the course of the three nights of previews and the opening night of the film, and the camera follows characters in and out of the St. James in one seamless long take. It's mesmerizing to watch, as our view intimately floats around, up and down, circling, drifting around the various characters.
From a technical standpoint it's incredible to see what Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki pull off with Birdman in terms of long takes, camera angles, and the seamless nature of the film similar to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. Aside from a few cuts at the beginning and end, it is presented as one long take - including moments where it stops on a shot and we watch the sky go from night to day, before panning back down and continuing. It's phenomenal, and everywhere the camera points has something to add, whether it's just a quote on the wall, walking through hallways, or a shot from the stage looking at the audience. It's so beautiful, and astounding cinematic storytelling to make an entire film like this and actually pull it off.
While Birdman really is Michael Keaton's show, there's a number of great performances that surround him. First and foremost, I haven't loved Edward Norton this much in a movie since Fight Club (and Moonrise Kingdom). He's fucking hilarious, a total dick to everyone around him, yet oddly likable. I was intrigued by what his character was going through as much as Keaton's character. In addition, Emma Stone gives one of her finest performances as Riggan's daughter, along with Zach Galifianakis as Riggan's lawyer. The rest of the ensemble including Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts are also at the top of their game, due to Iñárritu's immense talent. He knows how to get a depth out of his actors most directors can't.
Of course, the film really is all about Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson and he is perfect. Keaton explores a full range of humanity, from fear and love, to hate and regret, to passion, pleasure, concern, melancholy, and intensity. Critics seem quick to compare Keaton's actual career with the character he plays in this film, but maybe he just is this talented and needed the right role to shine again. Its been so long since I can say I've loved one of Keaton's performances, but that now changes. I'm sure I will find myself revisiting this often to understand why he reacts certain ways, and how much one can struggle with the challenges of life.
The best films are the ones that are not only entertaining, but as much about ourselves as the characters. They allow us to reflect our own experiences with those of the people on screen, while also providing the threads for us to understand their intentions, and why they are doing what they're doing (and who they are). With Birdman, Iñárritu has created a masterpiece of a film that touches upon all of these ideas, exploring the ego and identity, while giving us something to laugh at and smile at for 120 minutes. I already want to revisit this film over and over, let it wash over me, let it affect me deeply and see what else I can discover behind its curtain. We all have a Birdman inside us, it's just a matter of choosing to let it be free. Fly on...
Alex's Telluride Rating: 9.8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing