Lets take a moment and think back to Venice 2003. A young Mexican director lands in Europe with his first feature in the English language; a gloomy examination of human suffering called 21 Grams. Skip forward to today and we're back in Venice. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is considered to be one of the most respected directors in world cinema today and- up until this week- his films have followed 21 Grams' same gloomy line. Indeed, if the director’s career to this point has played to the bleak tones of a sinking Titanic quintet, his latest walks to the brash beat of free flowing jazz.
Birdman stars Michael Keaton as a deranged version of himself. He plays Rikkan Thomson; an aging superhero actor attempting to reclaim artistic clout by writing, starring and directing in a Broadway play. He pours his heart, soul and wallet into the production but of course, it’s driving him mad. The trope might sound a touch cliche to some, but what separates Birdman’s story arc from others which have come before is that our hero is haunted by the very role he is trying to leave behind. Voices are heard; superpowers envisioned; and everyone around him helps to twist the psychological knife.
Ed Norton lays waste to all sorts of scenery as one of those talented thesp-with-integrity types. Emma Stone does the rehab daughter; Zach Galifianakis does the long suffering agent; Andrea Riseborough does the want-away lover; and all play their part in Keaton’s mental demise.
An absolute marvel of raw technical achievement; the film plays out entirely within the confines of the play’s production and, roughly, within the confines of the theatre itself. The setting is uncomfortably tight and claustrophobic, and it’s in these confines that master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki plays his greatest trick card.
There are some flashy Saul Bass looking credits at the beginning and a brief dream sequence late on but, apart from that, this 119m film is presented as one single flowing take. There’s a bit of scene stitching afoot- some good, some bad- but for a full-on jarring single-shot experience, Birdman emphatically pulls it off. Cameras float through windows in an otherworldly fashion, the story arc loosely jumping and skipping through time.
Add to all that the surrealist lighting; the flawless choreography; and the rattle of Antonio Sanchez' jazz drum score and you have a film not just of visual sophistication, but an unquestionably singular, technically astounding and downright ballsy piece of work too.
In 2003 this fine director brought a film with its eyes to the ground, but he has returned in 2014 with a boot through the door.