Arts & CultureFilm & TV

Review: ‘Birdman’ is sharp, powerful filmmaking

Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the fifth feature film of Alejandro González Iñárritu, is billed as a black comedy film, but it seems more like a slapstick drama. It follows Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful, none of which were exactly laugh riots. It’s as hilarious as it is stressful and it is sharp, powerful filmmaking.

Birdman is a loopy story of Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton), a has-been Hollywood actor, known most famously for his superhero trilogy from the nineties. He’s now adapting Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway, hoping it redeems his career. Thomson is both an actor and director, but the latter seems questionable; he has massive trouble maintaining a functional production and personal life and keeping both from being clawed apart by others.

In his dressing room, he has a note card taped to his mirror that reads: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” It’s more philosophical than inspirational, but it seems to also be a defense mechanism, something to insulate Thomson from critiques of his work.

The script is unique in that it both frames the film and sometimes deceives the viewer. Dialogue is rapidly spouted back-and-forth between characters semi-constantly. In every other scene, it takes some time to figure out whether these are actors legitimately conversing, or just running lines for rehearsal.

It’s immaculately filmed; Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the best cinematographers working today, has already established his talent for hypnotically long takes in Children of Men, Gravity and The Tree of Life, masterfully orchestrates a two-hour dance in Birdman. The camera weaves through narrow theater halls and around a New York City block. It’s done seamlessly, as if the entire film is one uninterrupted take. The actors themselves appear monolithic. They tower among the Times Square skyscrapers like their stature alone is composed from their self-inflated personalities.

Birdman is as much about theater as it is about the relationships these people share with others. The strings of Thomson’s life run through the play’s producer (Zach Galifianakis), his spiteful daughter (Emma Stone), his demanding method actor (Edward Norton) and his counterpart (Naomi Watts), the New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), and the voice of his own brooding conscience, none of whom seems to stop weighing down on his sanity.

The acting is outstanding across the board. Keaton exhibits the wearied desperation and hallucinatory self-loathing of an absolute nut. Watts and Norton sometimes are acting multiple roles layered together. The NYT critic and Norton’s character address each other with a tone reserved for arch-nemeses. Even Stone, an actress who rarely excels her peers or demonstrates much variety in her previous films, is terrifying in each scene of Birdman, especially in her charged monologues that eviscerate its recipient.

Birdman is unlike any other film in theaters this year. It raises many more questions than it answers. Like the spastic, percussive score that pounds throughout the film, it’s electrifying. It’s profoundly original, from the opening take to the last curtain fall.

Birdman is playing at the Bijou Art Cinemas (492 E 13th Ave, Eugene, Oregon) and the Cinemark 17 in the Gateway Mall (2900 Gateway St, Springfield, Oregon).

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Emerson Malone

Emerson Malone

Podcast producer with The Daily Emerald and student research fellow with the UO-UNESCO Crossings Institute.