OK Go, that band whose music videos consistently outperform their music, would find it hard not to be impressed by Birdman. That's because the film features one remarkable, continuous shot that goes for 119 minutes and is called Birdman.
It's a cheat, of course. Like Timecode before it, there are cuts amid the long takes, but much of director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's remarkable achievement is how seamlessly they’re all pieced together. Filmed like a play but choreographed like a dance, Birdman is cinematic ballet where the way the story is presented is just as critical to its telling as the story itself.
And what of that story? It’s a simple one, but like all good tales, the simplicity of plot is offset by characters possessed of deep complexity. None more so than Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up movie star whose career faded into obscurity after turning down the lead in ‘Birdman 3’ (allusions to Keaton’s career post Batmans 1 and 2 are clearly — and gleefully — embraced by all).
Thomson has gambled everything on one final shot at restoring his credibility: a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that he has singlehandedly adapted, directed and is starring in. There's a matryoshka doll feeling to it all: the movie, filmed like a play, about the movie star putting on a play. The effect is at once mesmerising and unbalanced, neatly reflecting Thomson’s own tortured subconscious. When narration sporadically occurs, it is not in the voice of Thomson, but Thomson ‘doing’ Birdman — the same gravelly exercise in duality that defines the Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy.
Then there’s the supporting cast, albeit one where ‘support’ is a giant misnomer since Keaton needs no assistance and each of the supporting actors puts in a lead-worthy performance of their own. As Thomson’s friend and agent, Zach Galifianakis shows remarkable, understated reserve, while Emma Stone is refreshingly dark as Thomson’s recovering drug addict daughter Sam. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough both demonstrate incredible depth as Thomson’s on-stage co-stars, but the standout is unquestionably Edward Norton. He plays Mike Shiner, an unspeakable egotist and critical darling whose dedication to method seemingly knows no bounds. Norton's scenes with Keaton showcase two of the finest performances of the year, and are spectacularly — most notably in their self-aware jibes at actors and critics.
This is a film that almost commands repeat viewings, if only to marvel at its mechanics. Yet Birdman offers so much more than form. Darkly comedic, intellectually challenging and emotionally confronting, Iñárritu's film is a tantalisingly original piece of cinema that belongs on everyone’s must-see list for 2015.
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