The gimmick built into the construction of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) has every likelihood of sinking it. The not wholly novel story of a desperate actor (Michael Keaton) mounting a troubled stage production in hopes of reviving his moribund career is presented through much of the film as if it is being capturing in a single continuous tracking shot, the camera weaving and ducking through the labyrinthine theater where the action takes place, with the occasional diversion to the New York City streets or a nearby bar. Given the noted lack of restraint previously shown by director Alejandro González Iñárritu — perpetrator of features such as 21 Grams and Babel — there was cause to believe Birdman would quickly devolve into a eyesore of empty technique. I share this to not only concede the prejudices I carried into the film, but as a means of illuminating exactly why I think Birdman is the strongest work of Iñárritu’s career, by a significant margin. The single shot conceit winds up the opposite of an indulgence. The intricate orchestrations required to make it work necessitate a new discipline on Iñárritu’s part. Paradoxically, the restriction is liberating.
For the film’s technical feat, Iñárritu had a ringer at his disposal, thanks to his status as one of the three amigos. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki isn’t all that prolific, but he’s signed his name to some marvelously shot movies the past few years, including a pair by Alfonso Cuarón — Children of Men and Gravity, the latter winning both director and cinematographer Academy Awards — that made notable use of lengthy tracking shots. Cuarón primarily used them to heighten the tension of pivotal scenes. In deciding to tell their entire story using this method, Iñárritu and Lubezki lose the impact that comes from artful deployment of the technique, but develop a visual creativity that replicates the dynamics of well-chosen edits to drive and shape and scene. The stunt element fades as the moving camera and occasional trickery to flit forward in time develop into a engaging and unique fabric, the elaborate choreography of shots that are perfectly smoothed together into an admirably invisible artistry.
There’a also ace work across the cast, led by Keaton, who benefits immeasurably by the parallels between his own career and that of the character, led by a distant history as a big screen superhero. The film allows Keaton to tap into the darkness that’s always been his best, sneakiest strength as an actor. There are few better at shifting between high dudgeon and small scale, naturalistic emotional intimacy. Keaton does so repeatedly and marvelously, the camera’s unblinking lens highlighting the skill of the performance. He’s met by a fine supporting cast, with especially strong turns by Edward Norton (the best he’s been in years, playing a problematic actor in a role that also evokes the real-life reputation of its performer) and Emma Stone (as the troubled daughter-turned-assistant of Keaton’s actor). Rounding out the collaborators that deserve special citation is Antonio Sánchez, delivering a unique score of racing, frenetic drumming that is an ideal aural representation of the lead character’s increasingly unhinged anxiety.
Perhaps inevitably, Birdman does have segments that Iñárritu can’t quite muscle into place, especially the closing scene that deploys some of the motifs too blatantly and twists awkwardly toward a series of wins. I’d probably take a harsher view of the fumbled ending if it didn’t seem Iñárritu had pushed himself into an almost impossible position with the delirious acrobatics of his narrative. The loopy punchlines of his chosen conclusion are as good a way to end the film as any. If the film sports a few imperfections, that’s totally in keeping with the themes it explores and the reckless daring of its construction. When an artist flies straight at the sun, a little wax is going to melt.