A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.
Year 3, Film #40
THE GOOD: This is a film that I’ve been looking at with a very curious stare ever since the first trailer hit months ago. It looked interesting, but I had no idea what the film was going to be about. Yes, it’s about a washed-up actor but then why is there a monster-crow breathing fire from the sky with helicopters trying to shoot it down? The second trailer didn’t help and might have confused me even more.
Now that I’ve seen the entire film, I can’t say my understanding of what I watched is any better. The general direction and concept of the film is much clearer, but this is a film you need to sit on and probably watch a few times before it really sinks in. The closest comparison I can make, which in no way reflects the tone, is to Christopher Nolan’s Memento. With Memento, you’re tasked with following two parts of the same story, one being told in reverse, the other being told chronologically. It has the effect of creating a feeling of uncertainty because you never know what’s coming next. And when you think you have things figured out, the answer turns out to be something completely different.
Birdman has the same effect where you think you understand what’s happening only to be contradicted in the next scene. Another big difference between the two is that Memento had a final twist that dropped all the puzzle pieces into place so you walked away from the movie thinking about what happened, but knowing which parts to think about. Birdman does not have a final big twist (there is a “twist” at the end, but it’s not enlightening) and so you walk away from the movie not knowing what to think about. There’s a whole slew of unknown-unknowns that leave your mind in a daze. You’re consciously aware of everything you just saw and can recall specific events and details, but if faced with a comprehension test, chances are you’d fail with flying colors1.
I’m not trying to say that this film makes no sense whatsoever; if it did that would just be a waste of your time and no fun at all. The reason Birdman is so appealing is that it makes some sense, and the rest is just outside your grasp.
Some things about the film are very clear though. The first is that this is an acting film. All the characters are allowed the freedom to explore and test the space they’re in, and performances around the board are phenomenal and some of the best of the year. Riggan “Birdman” Thomson (Michael Keaton) and Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) are the two main characters with major supporting roles by Sam (Emma Stone), Lesley (Naomi Watts), Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and Jake (Zach Galifianakis). When I say this is an acting film, I mean that not only in a very positive manner but also very literally. Birdman is all about the performances these actors give and not necessarily about the plot. I was going to say it’s also not about the journey these characters go on and rather more about in-the-moment reactions. This is true for much of the film but the journey and transformation these characters go through is noticeable and plays a role in the appeal of the film.
A few more words about the acting. What I find so fascinating about the performances given in this film, and why I’ve dedicated so much time in trying to explain it, is that they feel real. I know I’ve said that before (and meant it too) for other films (Boyhood is one example), but Birdman is different. The film is about Riggan trying to put on a play adapted from Raymond Carver’s short story. But the film itself feels like a play and the play in the film feels like the “fake”, staged, performances more typically seen in movies. Whereas acting in a film like Boyhood is great because it feels lifelike and documentary-esque, the acting in Birdman is phenomenal because it’s lifelike in another way; it’s visceral, it’s gritty, it’s honest.
The other big area I’ll focus on here because I understand it the best (or at least I’d like to think I do) is the editing. For those that have seen the film, you may be thinking, “What editing? It’s just a single take except for the beginning and ending bits.” That’s true, but not really. The first thing to know is that Birdman wasn’t shot in a single take and you probably caught at least a few of the hidden cuts.
However, this all takes away from what the goal and ultimate effect of this decision is. While most people (understandably so) might think editing a film like this is easy work because there isn’t a lot to do, a job like this is often harder to pull off than a more “complex” edit (mainly because you have more room to hide your edits there2).
Work and complexity aside, I was truly taken aback by the effect it had on me, even going into the film knowing it was supposed to look like one long take. This choice enhances that visceral and honest quality I mentioned about the acting. You may not notice it in films (modern, and to a certain extent older classics), but there’s a shorthand in editing that usually primes you and directs your attention in a certain way. You start wide and end close which builds tension and leads you to feel or react in a certain way to that scene. With Birdman and having it be a “continuous” take, you don’t get that shorthand. It’s entirely new ground where you don’t know what to expect. Having to always think about what’s happening in the moment is weird in a film and it provides a sense of unease that contributes to the overall feel and mood of Birdman.
THE BAD: Most critics have universally praised Birdman and I certainly believe it deserves at least some of that recognition as I’ve described above. Where I’m finding fault is, as I alluded to earlier, in the confusion and lack of understanding I’m faced with.
There are just parts of this film that I don’t get. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, and I often argue in favor giving films the benefit of the doubt (suspension of disbelief is one of the whole reasons we go watch films, so we can be transported to another place, time, or world). But at some level, lack of clarity or understanding can cause problems. You get too distracted by trying to figure out what everything means that you lose focus on simply being entertained by what you’re watching.
Critics may have had an easier time dissecting what things mean and the purpose of it all (one of the things I hated most about high school English classes). And I think that if I could do that, this film might have received full marks. Maybe after more time and a few more viewings I could reach that level and achieve a new level of appreciation for Birdman, but as things stand now, I don’t, and therefore I can’t overlook that.
THE TAKEAWAY: Given everything I’ve mentioned and talked about, I think it’s safe to say that Birdman easily takes the “Most Interesting” film of the year award. The acting is phenomenal and deserves at least a few nominations/wins (I still have Eddie Redmayne as a favorite over Michael Keaton for Best Actor though — easily Best Ensemble at the SAG awards though). The editing, production design, and cinematography all combine to give this film a unique and interesting (there’s that word again) tone and feel which I think are its strongest attributes. But the story and message of the film left big question marks for me and distracted me from a truly immersive cinematic experience. Regardless, I’d still highly recommend to go see Birdman to witness the weirdness and gritty realism the film has to offer.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5
At least I would, although that’s never my strong suit. See “The Bad” section of the review for more. ↩
Think of a fight scene or even a car chase. In today’s films, you usually have an average of multiple cuts every second or two with a wide variety of angles and shots to choose from (including close-ups on the tires, road, and steering wheel in the case of a car chase) so hiding a mistake or change in continuity is easier. Compare that to a “single-take” edit where there’s only one possibility in terms of continuity and flow to choose from. Editors love having options to choose from. ↩