“A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist, the same way that a man becomes an informer when cannot become a soldier.” – Mike Shiner, Birdman (2014).
Every now and then you stumble across that perfect film. I’m not partial to giving perfect scores because every film has fault. So far I have given four five star ratings. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), Back to the Future (1985), Chef (2013) and Back to the Future II (1989). Add to that list Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance which I’m going to shorten to Birdman for obvious reasons. What makes Birdman work so well though? I’ll answer that some other time, I’ll be focusing on actually reviewing the film right now.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a fading actor best remembered for portraying the superhero Birdman. To combat this fading career, he opens up a broadway production. Everything seems to be going wrong for Riggan though, his lead co-star is knocked out and needs to be replaced. In comes Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a socially sparring individual that alienates those around him. Jake (Zach Galifianakis) tries to control the situation of the ailing play, but by opening night it seems like it’s too late. With a supporting cast including Emma Stone and Naomi Watts Birdman is very impressive.
Without a doubt Michael Keaton’s performance is the best part about this film. He plays the character of Riggan exceptionally well. There’s no surprise that this film is content on keeping us with Riggan almost all of the time. When we are away from Riggan, we get to see some great character development from the supporting cast. Most specifically is Shiner, with Norton giving quite honestly his best performance of all time. Everyone in this film gives their absolute best and this is very apparent throughout the entire film.
The big shtick for the film is that it’s created to look like a single shot film. This means that for the entire film there is not one single cut. No new locations are cut to, the scenes have no ending. Throughout the entire film we see only one obvious camera shot, with all of the others being hidden. A number of lighting and specific spots of the film are excellently produced to give off the feel that there are no cuts. Whenever a character goes into a dark hallway or a motion blur, expect there to be a cut. Honestly it’s mind blowing how extremely well the performance is.
Surprisingly there is a large amount of CGI in this film. Luckily it’s not used for anything more than the imagination of Riggan, which is fairly good. They’re used to present the difference between his action hero days and it works very well. A comparison that is made throughout the film is Riggan’s past life. He’s a washed up celebrity and throughout the film you can really connect with him. Honestly I felt really bad for the guy and this was only at the hour mark. Still with a film like this you really do expect to be given a wider exploration of the character.
Not so much a spoiler but an integral part to the film is Riggan’s monologue. It’s soon revealed that it is in fact his Birdman persona. The conflict within Riggan is presented extremely well throughout the runtime. Honestly let’s just put it in stone, Michael Keaton is an absolutely stellar performer.
I’ve always said that lighting and colour within films is so definitely important. So it may not surprise you that Birdman’s use of colour is truly marvellous. There’s a scene roughly an hour and a bit into the film where Keaton goes into a shop where the walls are covered in lights. As a visual, it was mind blowing, an absolutely stellar innovation that really added to the film. A definite great mix of darker and lighter colours to show where we are in the story. Small changes like that can mean a lot to a film and it’s obvious that Birdman knows this.
Musically it’s a very interesting film. There’s not a soundtrack to be fair, it’s more of an irregular drum beat. That sounds very odd but believe me it compliments the film tremendously well. When the scenes begin to get faster in pace and tenser in motion, the drum beat begins to pick up. Really what the drum beat throughout this film represents is how the audience should feel. When it’s more fast paced it’s usually leading to one of two things. A pay off to something that has been built up, or the continuation of previous tense moments. Either way I really enjoyed the drum beat throughout, its continuous beat really added to the film.
Birdman as a whole is a very difficult film to review. I can’t talk about the film because anything I say could spoil the film for you. I had been looking forward to watching this film for a very long time and I went into it knowing nothing at all. To me it’s one of those films that’s better off watching with as little knowledge as possible. For me it’s a very personal film, that’s probably the reason I picked the quote that’s at the top of the page. As a whole the film has underlying tones of anti-criticism and there’s nothing wrong with that. Believe me, I’m a critic, and I really enjoyed the message Birdman was expressing. The idea that actors can pour their heart and soul into their work only to have it shit on by one review. It’s an excellently approached issue throughout the film.
As a whole then, Birdman swiftly became one of my favourite films. Not just of 2014, but of all time. It’s absolutely stellar cast are clearly working to the absolute best of their abilities and they make the film work. A true masterclass in how creative direction can work so well, the single shot framework is perfect for this film. To some degree I can’t help but wonder what this film would have been like if it were shot in a generic fashion. Without that single shot and beautiful lighting and acting, all you have is a generic plot. See this is proof that a plot that isn’t the most interesting can be made to be so simply through the use of cast and cinematography. It’s an example of how the industry is managing to do so many things right.