The central problem for any review of Birdman will be to decide what the focus of the film is because there are two possible loci of attention: the human drama of a theatre company living out their lives amidst the production of a play, and the meta-drama of drama itself. How enjoyable one finds the film will depend on how engaging each of these components was. I have seen a number of reviews which found the formal and highly artificial exterior of the film to be a real barrier. The word “pretentious” has been bantered around. The converse of “pretentious” for me is “stylish” – there is a beauty and elegance in how tightly controlled the soundtrack and cinematography is. I thoroughly enjoyed the artifice of it, but I think that in some senses it is tantalising ambiguities where this film exceeds expectations and becomes something really compelling.
I think we need to begin with Jenni Sands’ question: does it make me love the people? For discussing Birdman, I think the emphasis needs to be on make: a lot of film-makers are extremely emotionally manipulative, telling you who to like, when and why. As Steven Spielberg has argued – of course films manipulate emotion, that’s the basic currency of storytelling. Conversely, a lot of filmmakers simply trust to the structural centrality of their main characters to engender the love that powers interest in much narrative. That’s what makes, say, Othello a more compelling tragic hero than, say, Coriolanus. Shakespeare troubles to paint Othello in a sympathetic light, and showcase the injustice he faces. Coriolanus is simply thrust onto the stage and into his story, and the audience quite probably doesn’t engage emotionally with whether he lives or dies (spoiler: he dies.)
Birdman doesn’t make you care about anyone in the drama. Each of the main characters is presented in moments of empathy, but also in moments of unreasonableness or plain cruelty. You could decide to like or dislike any of the core cast, and build a pretty good argument citing for-or-against moments for each of them. When Mike smashes the set during a preview performance, we see a monster on stage, rampaging when his will is thwarted. Only a scene or two later, we see his vulnerability as he reveals how deeply fractured his ego is to Sam, in an equally poor mental state. These scenes are, if you like, plot-adjacent, in that they don’t act as the origin-point of call-backs and they don’t chance the basic relationships in the drama. They simply offer perspectives on the characters, for the audience to interpret as they see fit.
I ended up fascinated by the cast of characters and would have been happy for more time exploring their dynamics and their psychology. I’m not sure I adored any of them, but they interested me and I came to care about what might happen to them. And what might happen to them had a sense of foreboding throughout, because of the double-plot shell around the characters: the adaptation of Carver’s work for the stage.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a book of short stories by Raymond Carver, and it is pure pathos. All of its stories are tales of loss and grief. Every character in the book is emotionally wrecked, and spiritually adrift – if it makes sense for an atheist to use that word. The first glimpse we get of the adapted play is a discussion a failed suicide, and the limits that anyone might go to in order to secure or defend love. Would you kill for that? As we withdraw from the fiction-within-the-fiction, we see that Riggan’s cast are all equally disfunctional. The fiction mirrors reality, or is it the other way around? I can certainly see how some reviewers have viewed this stratagem as either pretentious or simply cold, but I thought it brilliantly reflected what made the short stories so evocative and in a way that didn’t require familiarity with them. The concerns expressed by Carver, and by this film, are universal human experiences of uncertainty, of loss, of the struggle for acceptance. Of all the things we talk about when we talk about love – how do you make someone love you?
The content of the film – the ‘plot’ and ‘themes’ I talk about above – is wrapped inside an amazingly accomplished cinematic shell. It is beautifully shot, with no obvious cuts, and a real-time kinematic energy. The camera follows the cast through their confined theatre spaces, dropping and then re-acquiring the different threads of the drama with supreme dexterity. This gives the drama an additional energy, and an additional aspect of beauty.
This is a film with plenty of laughs, but I think that it’s fundamentally melancholy interests make its nomination of “Best Comedy” at the Golden Globes extremely dubious. Birdman resists providing anything more than provisional or contingent answers to any of the questions it raises. It is certainly one of the best films of the past few years, and in a year without Boyhood would be my Oscar pick.
P.S. It didn’t fit conveniently into my main review structure, but I think it’s also worth noting that this film has not one, not two, but four strong female characters; all of whom express agency and determination. Of course none of them are as important as the central character, Riggan, but each is fascinating and as large or larger a part as any man other than Riggan.