Oscar season is, now more than ever, upon us.
Films are being rushed into cinema screens as we speak, and the likes of “Foxcatcher”, “Whiplash” and “American Sniper” are all competing for the hype that could carry them over the line. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Michael Keaton, falls right into this category, having been released only a couple of weeks ago. It’s here that similarities with any other awards contender stop, however. In fact, you’re unlikely to see another film like “Birdman” this year.
Following the life of Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, a once famous Hollywood actor attempting to rekindle his success by branching out into Broadway, the film is littered with dark humour, shocking fantasy and tragic character interaction. The opening shot shows Keaton in his dressing room, floating in an apparently meditative state. This is an appropriate start, as without these bizarre interjections, there would be very little to smile about in “Birdman”.
By merely explaining key features of the film, there is a danger of painting an impressive but pretentious picture. The already well-documented soundtrack, written by Antonio Sánchez, is made up almost entirely of percussion, whether integrated with what’s happening onscreen or purely offering incidental accompaniment. The film is shot in a “one shot” style, regularly following Keaton around the cold, winding corridors of the theatre the film centres around. Without watching the film, you could make some fairly cynical opinions based on those facts alone.
“‘Birdman’ is a game changer for mainstream cinema.”
However, the way these elements complement the style of the movie, coupled with their individual brilliance, means that you almost don’t notice them. The soundtrack is subtle (other than when you can actually see the performers), and is normally only present when Keaton is walking, a kind of musical internal monologue. As for the camera work, the entire film is both gorgeous and dank in equal measure, with some truly stunning transition shots.
The movie has an often clear sense of tragedy at its fore. A brilliantly disillusioned Ed Norton brings to life a troubled “method” actor, going to bigger and more shocking extremes to get excited onstage (euphemism fully intended). Another clear theme of “Birdman” is the blurred distinction between theatre and reality, living and pretending. Norton’s Mike Shiner clearly states that he only feels alive when onstage, when he speaks to Sam Thomson, played by Emma Stone in another well-judged performance.
Ironically, the star of the show is undoubtedly Keaton. A fantastically self-deprecating role, Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is suffering badly from the loss of the limelight, and is developing some quite severe delusions of the grandest order. At many different points in the film, your opinion of Thomson is likely to change, as he struggles through tragedy, criticism and humiliation of his own making. His relationship with every character is nuanced, never overplayed, even with his occasionally over-zealous lawyer, played just right by Zach Galifianakis.
Despite some undeniably wacky scenes and set pieces, you’re never lost in Keaton’s world, and watching him attempt to toe the line between fame and integrity is almost the most enjoyable development. In truth, these displays of madness and special effects are at first glance dispensable; however, they provide a touching and occasionally hilarious look into the mind of a true identity crisis, whilst also poking fun at current cinema’s blockbuster society. And Transformers.
According to bookmakers at this very second, “Birdman” has a middling chance of grabbing the Academy Award for Best Picture, along with 8 other nominations. When you already have respect and critical acclaim, however, awards aren’t everything. With so many different powerful elements mixing together to create something so enjoyable, “Birdman” is a game changer for mainstream cinema. When awards season has passed, it’s unlikely this film will be forgotten for quite a while.