At the corner of anxious depression and artistic frustration is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), an emotionally and physically claustrophobic backstage comedy of sorts. It stars Michael Keaton as an actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He plays Riggan Thomson, an actor whose stardom peaked two decades ago with his role as Birdman in a series of superhero movies and now sees his mental state rapidly deteriorating as his passion project comeback – writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on a Carver story – nears opening night. If the first part of the conceit sounds a lot like Keaton, who two decades ago left the Batman series and is now in what’s being touted as a “comeback role,” lets hope his psyche’s in a better state.
The film floats through lengthy Steadicam takes from master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki edited to look (nearly) like one long fluid shot. Hardly novel, Hitchcock made one film look like one shot all the way back in 1948 with Rope. But it’s a trick so few attempt that it retains an impressive power. It’s transfixing, sliding through rehearsals and previews with smart elisions of time as the camera roams in and around this New York theater on the week leading up to the opening night. As characters zip in and out of scenes with expertly timed dialogue and blocking, I sometimes sat back from the proceedings, simply enjoying the logistical satisfaction of so many moving parts coming together. It’s a little better than a gimmick, effectively trapping the audience in the film’s headspace with no down time. The pressure is high. The walls are closing in.
Keaton, one of our finest actors when it comes to exploring the wilds between id and ego, does a terrific job holding down the increasingly mad center of the film. His character is a pitiable narcissist who has bitten off more than he can chew. He’s doing this to be relevant, to be loved, and to make art, definitely in that order. He’s frazzled, overwhelmed by the multitasking asked of a multi-hyphenate, his only solace talking to the voice hallucinating inside his head egging him on for better or usually worse. Surrounding him is a fine collection of showbiz types. There’s the exasperated producer (Zack Galifianakis), the leading ladies (Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), the preening Method actor (Edward Norton), the ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a critic (Lindsay Duncan), and stagehands (including Merrit Wever). Best is Emma Stone as Keaton’s ex-addict daughter working as his assistant, a non-showbiz voice in rooms of people rapidly disappearing up their own egos.
The parts are performed with great precision, words spat out in rapid-fire monologues and tense dialogues that harmonize with the all-drum-solo score from Antonio Sanchez. Together they’re an endless clanging keeping the entire experience off balance and driving forward. The cast is free of the usual shot/reverse shot coverage, allowing them greater control over the rhythms and pauses, the psychological space as well as the physical. They create a world of people symbiotically clinging to each other as both a career move and an artistic expression, acting out their interpersonal dramas in the wings and dressing rooms before sublimating those energies into performances on stage. Their banter is as crisp and funny as it is painful, and the laughs start to choke off the more desperately the sweat appears. Narcissism and insecurity make a potent mix, one the film is unrelenting in conjuring.
At first it appears tonally different and a stylistic outlier in Iñárritu’s oeuvre. It’s lighter, more fluid, and about a feeling of emotional constipation and professional frustration that, though deeply felt and important to the characters, pales in severity to the violence and misery on display in his Very Serious Dramas Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. I appreciated those film’s miserabilist impulses, but he hit a wall with the dire Biutiful, luxuriating in signifiers of importance without much more to say with them. So on the one hand, Birdman’s relative lightness on its feet is a much-needed artistic rejuvenation. On the other, it’s as deeply pessimistic as anything he’s made. It loathes, thinking artists are egomaniacs, Hollywood is hollow, critics are lazy, and audiences are stupid at worst, gullible at best. The core of rage in Keaton’s performance, playing a character who feels most upset that after all this effort he may not receive affection for it, plays off this omnidirectional frustration that assumes the worst out of everyone.
Birdman’s bravura cinematography is also a reflection of this cramped, thematically repetitive expression, as pressure mounts and the play stumbles on its way to opening night, the drums clanging, the camera ceaselessly swirling, the cast executing their tightly choreographed blocking. It plays on the surface pleasures of the backstage drama, threading it with humor sometimes so dark it borders on gallows. By the end, it’s miserable. Still, it’s hard to look away from such a high wire act on the last nerve’s edge tension between comedy and tragedy. You get the sense Riggan’s entire existence depends on this play going well. And given his, and the film’s, tendency to assume the worst, the outcome looks bleak, indeed.