It was Oscar Wilde that claimed that ‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates life’ and this sentiment is particularly true when it comes to Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Washed up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is trying to get his career back on track with a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and the film follows this production through the previews and opening night.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) has shot the film to look in an unbroken take, with the camera following characters scene to scene. Whilst this isn’t a wholly original idea (see Hitchcock’s Rope), due to the theatrical nature of the narrative, the technique blurs the lines between the film, the play and even whether it is a documentary.
That is not just to say that the film is a purely technical experience. Inarritu takes shots at everybody throughout the film: actors, writers, audiences, critics, the ongoing trend of superhero movies and increasing amount of action sequences to name but a few. It is fair to say that Inarritu is in no way singling anybody out to take shots at – he aims the sights at everybody. This may be the most hate-filled film of the awards season.
The main arc begins with an on-stage (during a rehearsal) accident that causes Keaton’s Riggan to consult with both best friend and lawyer Jake (a refreshingly controlled Zach Galifianakis) and co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), Riggan brings aboard the volatile yet critically lauded Mike (Edward Norton). After Mike is brought in, he starts a friendship with Riggan’s daughter and assistant Sam (Emma Stone).
Whilst at its base level, the film is about the construct of a play, there is also a fantasy element with Riggan’s telekinesis and levitation. Riggan was famous within the film for playing a superhero called The Birdman many years prior. The Birdman also serves as a voice of torment in Riggan’s mind and it is during the conversations with The Birdman that we see the fantastical abilities.
Interestingly, there are several jibes at superhero films throughout the film – with Riggan being internationally famous for playing The Birdman – which given the histories of some of the cast members (Keaton, Norton and Stone having all been in superhero films) seem like particularly pointed shots.
As a result of the blurring of the lines both within the film and with its references to reality, the film is often extremely challenging to the audience and deliberately unsettling. The use of sound is key, as the relentless jazz drumming seems to accompany each scene. Although challenging is often a negative term, the Birdman manages to ensure that it exists to be questioned and examined whilst still remaining enjoyable and a completely transfixing, hypnotic experience.