Ego, it’s something we all struggle with, either that or something we don’t recognize as being what’s pushing us into decisions day after day. This is the voice you might often tell yourself is the Holy Spirit, when in reality it’s your selfish ambitions and desires flying up for a chance to breathe above the clouds. It’s the driving force (in the minds of some) that makes us who we are, that reminds us of what we once were, as well.
Writer/Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance attempts to examine this ego we all possess, and in so doing serves up a deliciously complex and poignant movie that’s as fun to break down as it is to talk about.
The film centers around Riggan (Michael Keaton), an actor famous for once donning the cape of Birdman. The parallels between Keaton and his character make him a perfect choice for the role (He was the guy who gave Jack Nicholson a good push off the ledge in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)). Riggan is now struggling to fight his former glory as he is about to premiere his newest Broadway production. Will the play be a success? Can Riggan overcome his former glory?
From the opening, Birdman is a wonderfully crafted motion picture. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki (whose previous efforts include last year’s Gravity) presents the film as one continuous shot, and the results are not as gimmicky as one might expect. While forced perspective can sometimes result in lazy filmmaking (found footage, for example), here the conceit of one perspective actually works. This notion allows us to feel up-close with the characters; there is no hiding from their faults–or their egos. It eliminates any notice one might take with editing, and allows us to fully invest in what we’re watching.
The cast also includes Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter Sam, Zach Galfianakis as Jake, Edward Norton as Mike, and Naomi Watts. All do a fine job in their roles. Not one member of the cast sticks out in a bad way. In fact some (Norton in particular), rise to Keaton’s performance, creating characters that would be interesting to follow in their own stories. Keaton’s moments as the actual Birdman superhero are fun to watch as well (taking advantage of the lead’s Batman persona, complete with a costume straight from the 90’s and a droll, dry voice).
The film is shot well, capturing great performances, all of which are accentuated by Antonio Sanchez’s score, which is entirely percussion. It uses jazz-inspired drums that heighten the weirdness and the zany atmosphere that drips off the screen while watching Birdman. What’s smart is that the score isn’t used too much, instead coming in at specific beats (no pun intended) in the film.
Some Things To Note
Even when Birdman flies to its highest of heights, when it’s making me smile, I can’t help but fault the film for a few inconsistencies. While the cinematography is beautiful and fluid, there were a few moments where I felt the film’s length. To be completely honest, Birdman isn’t that long (compared to most films I’ve reviewed) coming in at two hours exactly.
I felt Birdman’s length, because the story Iñárritu wanted to tell was one that presented many statements, without much expounding upon them. It’s as if the film is waving its wings wanting me to look at certain points and moments, without bringing them up later, or digging deeper into relationships or ideas. “Oh, lets write a film about a washed up actor! What do we have to say about him? Well, he’s frustrated, he’s sad … What else?” I’ll leave that up to you should you see the film.
Without spoiling anything, I will say that depending on one’s interpretation of the third act, Birdman could be seen as a film that caves in on itself, its message, and the story it was wanting to tell. For me, I had to do some research to even wrap my head around what I viewed, because the events in the film’s final moments are quite the head scratcher if you’re not ready for them. The film doesn’t end poorly, but it also doesn’t end well enough for me to finalize how I actually feel about Riggan’s journey. If this isn’t making sense, watch the film, and I guarantee you’ll understand what I mean.
Birdman as a whole left me with a strongly produced film that felt like it had a lot to say. This is a deep experience, one that demands repeated viewings for one to grasp a lot of how they feel about the picture. Its great performances, beautiful cinematography and camera work, pulsating score, and interesting premise added up to not being enough given that in hindsight Birdman doesn’t have strong wings to hold onto. It felt like it had a lot to say, but in reality, had not much to show beyond Riggan’s premise and some supporting characters with mildly interesting motives/dynamics.
Content Guide for Birdman
Violence – Man gets hit over the head and collapses to death, lots of blood. Angry people throw objects at each other. Guns go off during a stage performance.
Sex – Man onstage has an erection. A man undresses and we can see him nude from behind. Couples kiss, seductive talk between older men to younger women.
Language – Strong, consistent language, “f—k”, “s—t”, “a—hole”
Alcohol/Tobacco – Plenty of character drink liquor and smoke cigarettes. One recovering drug addict is hiding marijuana from her father.
+ Cinematography + Cast/Acting + Score
- Length - Potentially Self-Deprecating Third Act (Depending on one’s interpretation) - Lack of Pathos
The Bottom Line
Riggan was stooped in a smart premise–and unexpectedly, I found myself not as interested as many would lead you to believe (check RottenTomatoes.com and you’ll see what I mean). As his premise played out, I found that the film was stretching thin in what it had to say. With that being said, is there any virtue to be found? Perhaps, but I’ll more than likely remain ignorant to whatever good there is to be found here. All the good doesn’t outweigh the bad, so much as it sits even with it, cooped up in a cage called Birdman.