There is a key difference between seeing a movie and viewing a play. In a play, anything can happen. Every night, the same show is just a little different, and the actors bring something new to the stage. The audience responds in a new way from their own points of view. Films obviously cannot achieve the same degree of spontaneity. They are not alive in the same way plays are.
In spite of this, Alejandro Iñárritu’s “Birdman” feels, to audience members, a lot like a play. The anti-superhero movie’s pacing is deliberate, lending the characters considerable room to breathe. Every scene feels complete and purposeful. Extended sequences of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson alone in a theater dressing room build in intensity, with Keaton singlehandedly carrying the film forward through monologues often shot in extreme closeup.
A key part of what makes the film feel so much like a staged drama stems from the fact that it revolves around Thompson attempting to stage an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the story on which “Birdman” is also loosely based. Scenes from the play are acted in full repeatedly throughout the movie. A kitchen table scene and a motel room confrontation are both depicted at least three times, each a little different.
This repetition brings the film to life. You don’t see a montage of the action — you are immersed in it in real time. This is a bold choice, and if done incorrectly, it could have made the film feel repetitive and plodding. Fortunately, every moment feels purposeful to the plot, even those moments that have been depicted once or twice before.
The supporting cast is outstanding. Emma Stone’s portrayal of Thompson’s recovering-addict daughter Sam Thomson is extreme without feeling forced. The portrayal treads, but does not cross, the line of stereotype. It is heightened realism — everyone is the most extreme version of himself or herself. Stone delivers the best monologue of the film, speaking to her father in a closeup shot. She addresses the audience directly, bluntly laying out the shallow reality of a world obsessed with social media.
The cinematography — manipulated to look almost entirely like a single shot — stands out starkly in contrast to most films’ multi-camera points of view and sharp cuts. This also contributes to the stage play feel of the film: there is a single point of view, and each sequence of action is given its own moment. It can be overwhelming to view a split-screen or quick cuts showing various sequences all occurring simultaneously. Luckily, “Birdman” is refreshingly visually focused.
The soundtrack, consisting largely of drum pieces performed by Antonio Sánchez, is energetic and skittish, keeping the movie clipping along nicely despite its two hour runtime.
These stylistic elements bring poignancy to the film’s overall discussion of art, particularly as it relates to movies, theater and fame. It is a story about the impact of blockbusters and superhero flicks, made at the height of Marvel’s near-conquest of the film industry. It is a story about an actor struggling to become an artist, featuring a man who once starred in Tim Burton’s over-the-top Batman films. It deals with differing views of technology and social media held by teens and twentysomethings and their parents. Bottom line: the film is timely and powerful.
“Birdman” is not perfect, however. There are challenging moments and scenes that come off as somewhat contrived. The conclusion of the character arc for Edward Norton’s arrogant sociopathic actor, Mike Shiner, is rather abrupt. But even these issues feel at least partly intentional and purposeful, used to draw attention to the artistic deficiencies of the majority of popular movies.
Much goes on in “Birdman,” and it probably bears at least two viewings, particularly for those looking to catch details like the subtle differences between each performance of Thompson’s play. The film is entertaining, engaging and deeply thought-provoking. It includes some of its stars’ strongest performances to date. “Birdman” is one of the most unique films of the last several years — a must-see.