The Miraculous Feats of Iñárritu’s Birdman

or the Wondrous Virtue of Surprise

There’s a great game of Truth or Dare that happens in the middle of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film Birdman, a film which loves to play those same games with its audience. It requires us to go looking for truth amongst liars and costumes, and with our continued attention, we dare it to go further, and decide on its path.

We’ve had a lot of Birdmen over the years. From Hanna-Barbera’s animated Birdman, then Lil Wayne’s mentor Birdman, recently the Miami Heat’s Chris “Birdman” Andersen, and even Adult Swim’s Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. Iñárritu’s Birdman, though, could possibly take the name for itself. And it does so without giving the audience a moment to breathe.

Michael Keaton is Riggan Thompson, a washed up Hollywood action hero, looking for redemption. On Broadway, of all places. His dressing room is adorned by his past, his starring role in the Birdman franchise, the career decision that haunts him throughout. The meta joke here is that Keaton knows from which he’s performing. He was Tim Burton’s Batman, and he sure as hell hasn’t been up to much lately.

Yet, here, Riggan’s staged as difficult comeback as any, to direct, adapt, and star in Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. To do so, while something’s clearly unsettled in his head. As the film twists and turns through the corridors and dress rehearsals, we are led to question everything, but believe everyone.

Rare is it that a movie has to be seen in theaters to be believed, but this newly released feature implores me to suggest just that. Don’t wait for Netflix, just go to your local indie multiplex, and enjoy.

Don’t sit too close to the screen.

So, you’re back, now, right?

I’m hoping you weren’t spoiled going in about the visual style of the movie. I had that spoiled for me going in, and I can only imagine the effect of not expecting such surprise. Surprise has become the missing ingredient in most pop culture. Our beloved Breaking Bad ended not with not a single question. Gone Girl’s big twist was spoiled with the novel’s release. I’d love to see more films like this, with the confidence in its material and willingness to startle.

That it’s all just one shot. Or it looks that way, as cinephiles will tell you. Guessing that as the camera lingers, there’s some stitching of film going on. Except that Iñárritu’s got little tricks to even take that theory away. Like the ribbons constantly floating in front of an air conditioning duct in the distance. I want to believe it was all one shot, because of the impossibility and the degree of difficulty. Themes the film isn’t unfamiliar with.

Either way, the film felt more real than most, and I’d say it’s unwillingness to break visual contact has something to do with it. When Zach Galifianakis’ Jake stammers through his words with Riggan, a question arises if there’s a sprinkling of the true anxiety on top of the scene. That if he screws this one line up, everything preceding will all be reshot, and in order.

That there’s no room for mistakes, that this is as close to the Broadway production as movies get. Which is exhilarating.

Theatricality aside, though, the film’s biggest surprise was Emma Stone’s screen-burning performance. Yes, for Keaton, this should be a career revitalizing role, and for Edward Norton, a reminder that his appearances are rare because he can be picky. It’s Stone, though, who takes every scene the film places her in. Whose chemistry with Norton felt heated beyond anything we’ve seen from her before, and the monologue she delivers upon Keaton to raise the stakes for her future opportunity.

The film’s style, though, is a dare upon the audience. A challenge not to blink. The fear of missing a single frame. There are no fades out, or jump cuts, only the movie. As Norton’s Mike challenges the audience to have a real moment, to come out from behind their camera phones, so too does the movie challenge the audience to not check their phones.

The solid two-hours running time, though, may be too long for some to have their attention held. The film is gripping, and its pacing is entrancing, but our lizard brains aren’t used to this. The greater fantastic realism near the end breaks things for me. I’d rather process a nervous breakdown on Riggan’s part than think he was magic all along, and chose to hide it.

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