“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” In that one line, Birdman ridicules everything we hate – and love – about films. And I’m not going to give this film a rating in points – I’m not worthy enough.
Sorry for the clickbait headline. But in all honesty, this is a question that must be asked.
People often refer to Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made. They call it ‘the masterpiece of a megalomaniac’. It was a triumph in storytelling technique and cinematography (the use of deep focus, for instance). The acting was avant-garde. And the ambiguous, layered themes were a delight.
Okay, why am I comparing the work of Orson Welles and Alejandro G. Innaritu?
Because Birdman is all of the above – and maybe even more.
Thanks to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione – the whole film looks like one, long take. I haven’t seen such mastery over long takes since, probably, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
But they’re only the triggers. The man who pulls them, the man at the helm of it all is Alejandro G. Innaritu. Along with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo, he writes a story so powerful, and directs it with such deftness, that an oft-repeated story of a washed-up actor trying to find redemption becomes a documentary that indicts society of pandering to the lowest common denominator, where true ‘art’ loses its meaning – there’s a dialogue from noted theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (played by Lindsay Duncan) where she calls Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) ‘a celebrity, not an actor’. And then Riggan lays into her, saying that as a critic, she only ‘labels people without taking any risks or doing real work’. The actor-critic dichotomy is fascinating. Dichotomy is one of the many recurring themes through this film, by the way.
But could Innaritu have been a better stage master without having an a-list cast? Maybe, maybe not – what the actors have achieved in Birdman is, well, nothing short of remarkable. The man of the moment (or f**king moment, as his agent calls it) is Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton. Or as I’d like to call it, Birdman played by Batman. Such an obvious choice, when you think of it in hindsight. Or, just like when he was cast for Batman, it could have been a huge gamble that might not have paid off. But it pays off, and how. Oh, all the snide little references to ‘superhero movies’ are there (Christian Bale’s Batman voice, anyone?). But you’ll have to watch it for yourself to enjoy it. And do watch it for Michael Keaton’s career-defining performance – Spider-Man fans will definitely see how Birdman takes over Keaton’s personality like Venom does Eddie Brock (for instance, Birdman always refers to them as ‘WE’).
Then from Batman, we move to the Incredible Hulk – oh, not Mark Ruffalo. Remember Edward Norton? The brilliant, ‘American History X, Fight Club’ actor Edward Norton? Yeah him. Another fine actor who gave a great performance in a superhero movie, but who’s MUCH more than that.
(Are you starting to see a pattern now? Yes, Innaritu has made a movie that parodies the superhero genre, with actors who parody THEMSELVES. A parody within a parody.)
Norton gives a brutally honest performance of a dickhead theatre artist, who honestly doesn’t give a shit about the audience. And you just feel like punching him in the face even before Riggan does.
The other superhero connection you’ll find is Emma Stone – Gwen Stacy from The Amazing Spider-Man. And she’s given possibly the best performance within this film, as a recovering drug addict who now is her father’s assistant (a job she hates). Her big, bright beautiful eyes light up the screen, and she matches all the veterans on screen dialogue-for-dialogue. So do the other two ladies – the lovely Naomi Watts (why is she not in more movies I don’t know) and Riggan’s clingy girlfriend Laura, played by Andrea Riseborough.
Stop. Stop the press. How can I forget the obsequious yet pragmatic attorney-cum-agent Jake, played by the slapstick funnyman Zach Galifianakis? Only this time, he isn’t slapstick funny, he’s deadly serious – and he plays the Robin to Keaton’s Birdman with aplomb. Hollywood should explore his acting talents in genres other than comedy.
Even the ending – well, I won’t spoil it for you. GO WATCH THE MOVIE TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS!
So, Birdman is an indictment on society and the superhero genre, it is next-level storytelling of the redemption of a washed-up actor, it has acting quality of the highest order and it is a technical marvel in the world of filmmaking.
All of this brings me back to the first question I asked – is Birdman the greatest film ever made?
Actually… THE END.