In the realm of modern cinema, the gritty and unembellished, the ugly and brutal belong in the milieu of Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. His "death trilogy" (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) is a study of tragedy, citing lost, wasted and harried love as its aggressors and exposing the debilitating grief which follows. Hence, his latest entry into the Oscar race may come as a thing of surprise. Birdman, whilst not so far removed from his usual angle of the unromanced and diselusioned, is an entirely novel form of realism. The characters of Birdman are complex, cynical creatures yet idealistically hopeful, the assurance of "it'll be fine" lingering blackly over their trained lips. The ambitious feature is also both a notable comedic effort, the dark humour casual yet indisputably clever, and a technical marvel, the entire flick filmed of one fluid, unbroken shot. A spirited creation to add to a resume of primarily dark works, Birdman is the perfect example of a director being rewarded for taking risks in his work and reaching for elements outside of his expected capacity. Birdman is that rare combination of both escapism and insight - whatever type of movie-going experience you desire, Birdman will fulfil it.
Captured in seemingly, a singular shot, Birdman tells of former iconic movie superhero Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), who is attempting to stage a return to performance art via writing, directing and starring in his own Broadway production. The days leading up to the opening night of the show is nothing short of a mad struggle as his lead actor is injured and his neurotic, egomaniac of a replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), proves to be more of a challenge than a talent or saviour. His cynical fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) offers up little help as his production assistant and notorious New York Times critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), has already blacklisted the show, even before the curtains are drawn on opening night.
A vibrant, telling show, Birdman dazzles and charms, laced with spiky humour, the feature an intellectual exercise yet still inexplicably entertaining. Birdman provides insight into the minds of desperate artists, the blinding lights of fame and ambition. A desire for success runs core to Riggan Thompson, and the curious ways in which it motivates him compel and amuse the audience like no other film this year. It is Thompson's struggles which are principally featured in the film: his struggle to pacify his enigmatic actors, grasp onto any existing connection with his daughter and at the end of the day, to produce a show proving himself to be "relevant", valuable, an artist beyond any title of a washed up nobody so fondly used by the public. Here, Keaton is perfectly tempered to the black comedy genre, capturing the hysteria and incredulity of his situation with a deft confidence.
Each and every sequence of the film is elegantly executed and endlessly engaging, showcasing a script, as sharp as they come. A visual display of renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's (Tree of Life, Gravity, Children of Men) acrobatic skill, Birdman's aesthetics are more than just pleasing, they are innovative, daring and unusual. With Lubezski on hand, the fantasy elements electrify the viewing experience. Is this reality becomes a somewhat irrelevant question. The result is a flawlessly composed mess - absurd, comical, thrilling, euphoric and instantly iconic. As the film is structured around the "single shot", the scenes never fade to black or cut to another - each situation is seen throughout to its ugly resolution. With this technical niche, Birdman is successful in creating the illusion that all of this is happening now, that every moment featured is beautifully present and not some mere retelling or recount.
The cast of Birdman provide an ensemble of magnetic representations even beyond its prepossessing lead. The film demands much of its actors, the screenplay consisting primarily of lengthy, involved dialogues and the occasional impassioned, cathartic monologue. Emma Stone's performance in the role of entitled, privileged offspring of a celebrity is strikingly honest, never exaggerated. Idle and depressed, her character is the most intriguing of the feature and is played to justice by Stone. The actress portrays an avid personality we can all recognise, someone who forgets herself, regrets her words the moment they leave mouth, plagued by sharp tongue but blessed with quick wit. But she is also knowing and conscious, cynical perhaps, but not so unworldly and built-in as her naïve father. Edward Norton provides both colour and depth to a complex persona, neurotic, talented and narcissistic.
Birdman is that tremendously ambitious, sweeping, "larger-than-life" feature which endeavours to provide insights and inspiration. Its real success in achieving this is only realised at its conclusion, brought by ambiguity and its desire to push the boundaries of cinema just that bit further.