With Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Mexican-born director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu continued an arc of filmmaking guaranteed to evoke wildly disparate views among viewers and critics but which is unarguably one of the most noteworthy trajectories in film in recent years. Even some who find his earlier works—including Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), and Babel (2006)—visually and emotionally stunning have questioned whether Inarritu has sometimes confused a sense of dread, calamity, and fatal contingency with dramatic tension and asked audiences to suffer without revelation or catharsis or even a coherent provocation of tragicomic questions.
A closely related charge sometimes leveled at Inarritu’s explorations is humorlessness. Whatever else one may think about Birdman it should put that criticism to rest. The film’s humor is bleak but bracing; like shards of anthracite under a cold moon it crackles and gleams with a sharp buoyancy that feels both real and necessary underfoot. Birdman will no doubt vex those who have not previously found it enlivening (or worth the effort) to be seduced by Inarritu, but this time out—along with last year’s The Revenant—a significantly larger audience has begun to accept some vexations as a legitimate price of admission and follow him down the rabbit hole of the human condition.
In the case of Birdman this was, in no small measure, due to superb casting—most particularly, Michael Keaton in the lead role of Riggan Thomson. Inarritu has always been an actor’s director and the actors here, bringing their best, include Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone. All of the performances in Birdman are compelling. Keaton’s picks you up and doesn’t put you down.
Twenty years before, Riggan was a Hollywood icon in three boffo box-office installments as Birdman, an avian superhero. To the chagrin of his fans and accountants, he turned down Birdman 4 because he harbored more serious ambitions as an actor. Having had plenty of time to wonder about that decision, and taunted by the internal alter-ego voice of a Birdman presence (“You were a movie star, remember?”), Riggan now seeks redemption, both for his art and his life, by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway production based on Raymond Carver’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
A man trying desperately to wake from a long sleep choked with nightmares of misspent talent and opportunity, Riggan has decided to draw a line in the sand: he’s determined to put all his chips on the table and—for whatever it may be worth and because he’s almost certain no one else cares—live fully in the present moment as his own existential hero. He has apparently learned to cope with the profanely jeering Birdman in his head, at times more effectively than others, and has been trying to make more resolute attempts to be there for his daughter (Stone) who is freshly if querulously out of rehab, his manager (Zach Galifianakis), his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and his needy lead actress (Watts). Just before previews Riggan brings in a replacement actor named Mike Shiner (Norton, excellent in his richest role in years). Shiner is a difficult but critically respected actor who Riggan hopes will lend an additional patina of serious theatre to his all-or-nothing Broadway gamble. Unfortunately, Mike is also a nearly maniacal egotist, one of those actors who thinks provoking his fellow actors, however irresponsibly or even dangerously, is his truest artistic mission. And thus the intersecting dramas of Riggan Thomson’s life—off-stage, onstage, and internal—ignite.
The film’s ambitious embrace of various elements and tones accommodates some viewers more satisfyingly than others. Whether the conversations are abstract discussions conducted with earnest assiduousness over martinis about the reflexive comparisons Birdman raises between theatre and film and between life and art, or more raucous “WTFs” among pals over beers, this is a film destined to leave few viewers unexercised. The chief variable in receptivity may be a viewer’s tolerance for questions that go unanswered—and whether one attributes that to a lack of artistic integrity or to differences in our expectations of what art is capable of giving us even when life does not.
Aside from the vox populi, a few critics found their fodder for discussions of Birdman in deconstructionist examinations of his cinematic vocabulary and his experimentations in bending dramatic unities and categorical genres. Attention has been given to the film’s varied palette (gritty naturalism, magic realism, ironic black comedy), the fact that the extraordinarily long camera takes create a sense of uninterrupted real time, and the inside jokes and self-references of the casting. (Keaton famously played in two of the Batman films and turned-down a third, and Norton starred in The Incredible Hulk). While all of these may be valid facets for consideration, films that require something other than an academic response—and Birdman is one—tend to confound at least some precepts of conventional criticism.
Certainly, not all of the daring pays off. Some elements of the film may not work for some viewers, but my guess is that fewer moviegoers will find these distractions impossible to overcome while many more will find that their cavils can either be cerebrally or imaginatively condoned or subsumed in the overall experience. In either case, there’s a good argument that well-articulated gut-level reactions to Birdman may be more edifying than disquisitions—though undoubtedly somebody has to do it—about “meta” framings, borrowings of Godardian tropes, and whether or not the fluidity of the cinematography (see Hitchcock’s Rope, 1948, or Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark, 2002) is really anything new.
Whatever its minor missteps or occasional loose threads, Birdman’s intelligence and audacity brought Inarritu a wider audience. The quality of its success in galvanizing formal and stylistic elements and its capacity for engaging us is, though not faultless, quite remarkable. Keaton gives an arresting, deeply felt performance—focused, naked, searching, and fearless—and it’s hard to imagine that many viewers will be rummaging around in their response to make room for comparisons with his earlier work, even if that may afford a few afterthoughts on art and life imitating one another. This is a performance far more likely to pique one’s interest in what lies ahead for the actor. (If not—like Riggan, the stage—film versions of lead roles in Chekhov, Williams, and Miller come to mind. Lear comes to mind.)
It’s not often that a film demands a suspension of disbelief—or more accurately here, a reconsideration of what that even means—even as it grips us from moment to moment with insistent realism. Whatever clever film a clef concepts or transmogrified genre conceits may have littered the project’s initial conference tables, Birdman emerges as, at once, rarefied and lyrical rhapsody and scrupulously grounded, visceral drama.
Inarritu, his three co-writers, Ernesto Luzbecki’s breathtaking cinematography, the fine actors—and most memorably Michael Keaton, give this film a universality that transcends its backstage-story genre. Fierce, sensuous, and touching, Birdman moves with alert sympathy to the human reach sadly and sweetly exceeding its grasp. For those it doesn’t wear out it will prove an exhilarating film.
– Hadley Hury