Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

An illustration of Birdman by Braith Miller.
An illustration of Birdman by Braith Miller.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a wild, interesting character study about a “washed-up” actor attempting to revive his career through Broadway. Birdman is best gone into blind, without watching trailers, so if you, dear reader, are intrigued by things such as the acting chops of Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, black comedies, nifty camera work, and terrific dialogue, just run out and see it. If you are one of the types that has to read excessively about a film before seeing it, then read on.

Michael Keaton stars as the actor Riggan Thomson, trying desperately to live down his caped-crusader ways of Birdman in the ’90s, despite being haunted by the voice of said past. Rounding out the ensemble cast is Edward Norton as fellow actor Mike Shiner, Emma Stone as Thomson’s daughter Sam, Zach Galifianakis as Thomson’s best friend and producer of his play, Andrea Riseborough as Thomson’s girlfriend Laura, Naomi Watts as actress Lesley, and Amy Ryan as Thomson’s ex-wife.

The camera follows the characters throughout the process of sculpting Thomson’s play, an adaptation Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” before its fast-approaching opening night. Thomson himself is writing, directing, and starring in the play. The camera never cuts away from any of the characters, and is edited to look like one, long continuous take. Given the fact that the film takes place primarily on the block Thomson’s play is on, in and around the theater, it gives the film a theater-like, ultra-realist quality.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton soar in this odd film, the scenes in which they interact are electrifying and entertaining; Oscar nominations will probably be a shoe-in for them both. Probably the most surprising performance is that of Emma Stone, who has always been consistently good in her filmography, but never too serious or even too outstanding. However in Birdman, she is layered and troubled, with the same quick wit that she’s shown in some past roles.

In a film of incredible performances and unique camera tricks, surprisingly the dialogue itself is the strongest aspect. In theater, everything is overdramatic and heightened, and that’s just the case in Birdman. Everything in a way feels like improv but also highly rehearsed, the seamless camera following characters from scene to scene only amplifies this tension.

Walking out of Birdman I felt one thing: admiration. While there are plenty of other Oscar-bait films this year, Birdman is definitely the most unconventional, but just might be the most deserving of nominations.