"A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing."
On first glance, this quote - taped to the mirror in actor Riggan Thomson's (Michael Keaton) dressing room - feels like an immediate deflection of criticism, both for Riggan and for the film itself (more on that later). But Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the truly great new film from director Alejandro G. Inarritu, pushes the concept further, shaping itself into a thing that is not easy to define. It's difficult to say what kind of a thing it is, but there is so much to say of it.
The film centers on Riggan, an actor best known for playing the (fictional) comic-book superhero Birdman. It's been years since Riggan has last donned the cowl and cape, and now, having gone through public meltdowns and a divorce, he's trying to reclaim artistic credibility by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." As the play begins previews, though, everything seems to be falling apart. His agent (Zach Galifinakis) is trying to appease him. He's recruited hot-headed, difficult-to-work-with actor Mike Shiner (hot-headed, difficult-to-work-with Edward Norton), to fill in a key role at the last minute. His fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is his sarcastic assistant. Mike has a troubled relationship with the show's lead actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts). And on top of it all, Riggan may be losing his grip on reality, hearing the gruff voice of his most iconic character in his head bringing him down.
There are a lot of meta-textual layers in this film, to the point that even Charlie Kaufman, the acclaimed screenwriter of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, would have to be impressed. But the film is more than a showbiz inside-joke. It's a masterful work that uses the language of cinema to celebrate performance in all of its forms.
More after the jump.
The most obvious of these elements, of course, are the casting of Keaton and Norton into their respective roles. Keaton, best known as the face of Tim Burton's pair of Batman films in the early 1990s, hasn't had an opportunity to tap this deeply into the manic-comedian side of his talent since Beetlejuice, turning in a performance that's wholly remarkable in just how fully he commits to Riggan's tenuous grip on reality. Norton, too, playfully toys with his own reputation in his performance, digging into Mike's faux-pretentious ideas of "truth" and "beauty" and exposing them as bullshit. But it's bullshit that Mike has completely invested in, and in doing so Norton finds sympathy for the character. A pair of scenes with Sam on the roof of the theatre expose the raw humanity in both characters, giving both Norton and Stone ample opportunities to show just how talented they really are.
These performances are all aided by the central gimmick to the film: Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski (last year's Oscar winner for Gravity) shoot nearly the entire film as one unbroken shot, sneaking in edits invisibly a la Hitchcock with Rope or Aleksandr Sokurov with Russian Ark. As a result, the film feels as if it is taking place within the St. James Theatre on Broadway, not only textually (it's where Riggan is staging his play) but extratextually (it's the performance space for the film). Sure, it gives Lubezski an opportunity to show off his abilities with the camera, and shows new depths to Inarritu's talent that hadn't previously been seen. After building his career on large-ensemble miserablism like 21 Grams and Babel, it's great to see him doing something bolder and more experimental. But more than anything, it captures the electricity of live performance, giving the impression that the audience is actually watching Keaton and company perform these roles before their very eyes, rather than watching a filmed reproduction that was shot in pieces and then edited together.
And, ultimately, the idea of "performance" is what Birdman has on its mind. Riggan refers to wanting to be "authentic" and taken seriously as an actor, not just for donning a fantasy suit and raking in tons of money. Mike repeatedly talks about "truth," and that it's an actor's mission to show something "real" to the audience. There's Riggan's struggle to present himself as sane when he's clearly losing it. There's how the actors play versions of themselves in Riggan's mind, the camera firmly attached to his perspective and casting him as an unreliable protagonist. There's how, extratextually, the actors like Keaton and Norton are playing skewed versions of themselves, and how the film's cast are playing actors playing roles onstage in a film that purports to be a continuous performance in and of itself. It's even in Riggan's conflict with New York theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a woman who's performing the role of tastemaker by passing judgement on a work before even laying eyes on it. The film is obsessed with the layers of performance in everyday life, from the artistic to the personal to the celebrity-dictated.
What makes Birdman such a phenomenal achievement of filmmaking, though, is that Inarritu doesn't try to unravel this Gordian knot of performance so much as he revels in it, mining it for every ounce of black comedy he can squeeze from it. And make no mistake, like his previous films, Inarritu is not afraid to take the film to some very dark places. But in those places he finds not only whacked-out humanity, but further places to push the boundaries of his abilities. It's easy to say that there's nothing else like Birdman out there. Between it's enigmatic bookending scenes is a thing that provokes plenty to be said. A+