Some are already trying to figure out the "Birdman" backlash after the film dropped to raves in Venice, but sometimes the hype is justified, and make no mistake about it: Alejandro González Iñárritu's manic dissection of an artist desperate for fulfillment outside of commercial success is an out-and-out masterpiece.
We wrote some time ago about how the film would be constructed to resemble a single take, and watching things unfold at the Werner Herzog Theater Saturday night, I was definitely paying close attention to that. I counted maybe 12 or 13 cuts that were obvious, but there are surely a number of invisible digital edits throughout (much like how the great "single-take" car scene from Alfonso Cuarón's "Children of Men" was assembled, though you'd never know it). The first shot of the film, honest to God, feels like a 30 minute single tracking shot, but there had to be a digital cut in there somewhere.
Anyway, the question is why shoot it this way? Iñárritu has already been barraged by that question in Venice and will surely be hit with it all day Sunday as he does press in Telluride, but the reasoning is simple: it puts you in the moment, right alongside Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he struggles to put together a stage production of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." And that's absolutely the effect. Someone after the screening said to me that the razzle-dazzle of the filmmaking is distracting, but I don't necessarily agree. At least, I don't think it's distracting in a bad way. Shooting the film in this fashion only sucked me into the drama even more. And as a film that very much has a vein of jazz flowing through it (freestyle drums play prevalently over the soundtrack), it becomes a rhythm thing. It was a brilliant choice.
Which means, of course, we all need to once again bow to the might of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. This freakin' guy. The mechanics of steadicam shots are one thing but every environment captured throughout these extended takes is immaculately lit. That takes so much effort that it's exhausting just thinking of how this thing must have been staged. I wouldn't be shocked if he won a second-straight Oscar.
Speaking of which, our Venice correspondent Catherine Bray already brilliantly dealt with "Birdman" in review terms, so let's just get some awards talk out there. It's unavoidable when something leaves a crater like this has. There seems to be an opinion in some quarters that the "Academy demographic" (which has obviously shifted so much in recent years that you can't quite peg it down at present) likely won't react too favorably to the film beyond the actors. I disagree. It's a film about show business, for crying out loud, and one that really digs under the skin of performing, rather than dealing with it as just a superficial setting for drama. I expect it will play very well to the industry.
Everyone, of course, will be talking about Keaton. And he is sensational. The meta elements of the story are unavoidable, Keaton's own history with the superhero subgenre of filmmaking very much dissected in the form of Thomson's own past franchise, "Birdman." But that's not really where the beauty of the performance lies. Keaton shows the kind of range in this film that reminds you that he has dealt comedy ("Mr. Mom," "Beetle Juice"), drama ("My Life") and even villainy ("Pacific Heights," "Desperate Measures") with ease throughout his career. It's a tour de force and a comeback of staggering proportions. He'll be winning his fair share of awards this season.
But peripheral to that, and absolutely worthy of Best Supporting Actor consideration, is Edward Norton. He is positively on fire in this film. It's the best thing he's done since "25th Hour," at least, and maybe even as far back as "American History X" and "Fight Club." He blows into "Birdman" like a confident whirlwind, sparring with Keaton and Emma Stone with whip-like intensity and specificity, and when he ends up out of the picture for a chunk of the film's second half, you feel that absence. Stone, meanwhile, gets a number of great moments, one in particular where she lashes out at Riggan (her father) in a vicious "you don't matter" diatribe that had me stifling a mid-screening burst of applause, personally.
Other actors from the ensemble, whether Naomi Watts (quite good with limited screen time, actually), Zach Galifianakis (an intriguing point of zen throughout), Andrea Riseborough or Amy Ryan bring so much to the table and elevate the material all the more. Don't be shocked if this one manages to run away with the SAG ensemble prize.
So no, the film was not overhyped at Venice. It's an instant player in this year's awards race and the industry is sure to relate to it in profound ways, whether it's a mirror they want to look into or not. And I particularly loved the handful of times Iñárritu paused to take a gargantuan, immaculate, eloquent dump on critics and criticism. He had a lot to say in this film. A moment when Stone holds up a gone-viral You Tube video of the scene you've all seen in trailers, of Keaton rushing through Times Square in his underwear comes to mind. "This is power now," she says, and in an age where social media is not only embossing stardom, but in some cases creating it, that just gave me chills.
This is a major milestone in Iñárritu's career, perhaps even his best film to date. It's also obvious he had a lot of fun on the movie and that there was a much-needed levity after dour films like "Amores Perros," "21 Grams," "Babel" and "Biutiful." Indeed, as he said in introducing the film at its North American premiere Saturday night, he finally got to laugh on set this time around. The result is an invigorating burst that, for this viewer anyway, is quite simply hype-proof.
"Birdman" hits theaters Oct. 17.