Birdman: A Rare Work of Ambitious Cinema That Verges on Perfection

Birdman follows Riggan Thompson, an actor who played an infamous superhero character, as he makes a comeback through a Broadway play. The filmmakers created the illusion of one long-take, in this film with 9 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. It stars Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan.

From the little I had read about Birdman before I pressed play—on a night in which I would be starved from sleep, contemplating an incomprehensible amount of metaphors that would give any English student an aneurism—I knew it would be a film I would like. I had heard it was ‘new’, ‘different’ and of course Oscar-nominated. So when the Steadicam started its first swoop around Keaton’s character’s dressing room, I couldn’t help but analyse this film critically. I quickly became conscious that I was spending too much brain power admiring the carefully considered framing of shots instead of taking in the story itself. I was worried I was missing the point. Was the faux-long take was too distracting, I asked myself as I searched for its value; I became one of the critics the film itself so vehemently and ironically denounces.

Soon, however, the cinematography faded into the background as it balanced masterfully on the line between complimentary to the story, and exciting to movie-buffs and the drumming in the soundtrack became as vital to pacing the film as it was musically skilful. And then it became clear what is so great about Birdman—what makes it a marvel of cinema—the mastery of its composition, the performances and the dialogue aren’t garish or unnecessary, but they are immersive, to both you and your subconscious. Even with all that the film does that is new or absurd, it feels mature and wise: It’s an old man in his rocking chair reading you a story from his Kindle.

Birdman is like a dance. A splendid foxtrot where the camera paces around the setting as carefully as the actors recite their lines. When the camera stops, often inches away from the characters’ faces, we catch nuance after nuance in both the writing and the performance. Keaton, Stone and Shiner have completed the work of their lives; in their own ways they are brilliant. The emotion is raw, especially from Stone in her monologues. Keaton’s lead character is impossible not to love and root for despite all his flaws, and Shiner is skilful and ballsy enough to play a villain who is hateful but worryingly easy to empathise with. Galifianakis’ now proven dramatic ability makes me excited for his future work, and Watts’ experience on stage really shows.

The ending of Birdman, which I will resist spoiling in too much detail, is the real accomplishment. The final act brings together the skills of everyone involved while taking daring dramatic choices. The film gives you an ending, a resolution of sort, and won’t leave those who hate cliffhangers unhappy, but there are still a plethora of different interpretations of what really happened to Riggan Thompson. Is this a modern interpretation of the story of Icarus, or just a hilarious satire of Superhero movies? What did the end of the momentous long take mean? Emma Stone’s smile as the looks into the sky in the final shot opens up more questions, but to me, it says that it doesn’t matter what this film is about, whether Riggan has powers or not, what matters is that he has all he needs and wants and he can now move on; it’s really quite sweet.

There were a couple of mishaps in the film’s story, for example, Laura and Lesley’s relationship was underdeveloped and thus pointless. I also felt that the soundtrack, while excellent, relied too much on existing classical music where it could have done its own thing—it was disqualified from the Oscar for best Original Score because of this. In addition, Sam and Mike’s ‘forbidden love’ storyline ruined the notion of a bittersweet ending where Riggan had everything he wanted. He hated Mike, why didn’t he do something about it? These are just too minor to detract from the film’s genius however. They weren’t mistakes, they were intentions. I’m sure, somewhere I can find a convincing explanation to these concerns; Birdman does that, it has answers and convincing solutions for all its puzzling references and metaphors.

There is so much to read about this film, essays and analysis’ that could be for Shakespeare. In itself that doesn’t make it a good film, what does, is that these theories and interpretations only make sense when they consider the way the cinematography, acting and writing interact. The film is so thoughtful, so considered. It plays with your emotions and teases your intellect.

At this point, I’ve seen four of the eight Best Picture nominees. Birdman is the best. By a long way. I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Theory of Everything intensely, but Birdman is something else. It’s special. I haven’t seen a film this bold and adventurous in a while, let alone one that succeeds on every level. It’s a deep, layered, beautiful character study and an ambitious technical feat. Not everyone will like it because it isn’t ‘normal’, and the trailer ruins some key moments that are best seen as a surprise, but to me, it’s the best film of 2014, if not of this decade.