Any experienced filmmaker will tell you that movies are made in the editing room. Directors and cinematographers use a method known as "coverage" to get multiple shots and takes of individual scenes from a variety of angles and distances so even the most troublesome scene can be reimagined and assembled later from scratch. Anything else would seem risky to the point of negligence, especially for a big-budget Hollywood movie.
Co-writer/director Alejandro Inarritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the fictional story of washed-up superhero movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his desperate attempt at redemption through the creation of a highbrow Broadway play. It gleefully turns accepted filmmaking practice on its ear.
In an era when most feature films are cobbled together with edits that number well into the thousands, Inarritu constructed his film from a handful of carefully choreographed shots that all appear to be 10 to 15 minutes long. (The technique is so skillfully executed it's hard to say for sure.) Those shots are stitched together to achieve the illusion of an almost two-hour movie without cuts of any kind. This massively complex undertaking required an unprecedented level of precision — acting, sets, props, stunts and camera moves all had to come off exactly as planned or the entire shot would have been rendered unusable. In at least one instance, a single shot actually jumps forward into the next day without missing a beat. The effect is dazzling.
All those efforts add up to something that functions as a hybrid of film and theater while neatly reflecting the content and themes of the story. Much of the film takes place inside a Broadway theater, where Riggan is trying to direct and star in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Birdman is the superhero movie character that has defined Riggan's life and now speaks to him as a voice inside his head. Or does it? A touch of magical realism from Inarritu complicates the answer and enriches the film immeasurably.
The filmmaking method creates an extremely stressful situation for actors, and each brings an unmistakable intensity to the film. Both Keaton and Edward Norton — who plays Mike Shiner, the brilliant but pretentious young actor brought in to save the production — manage career-defining performances. Birdman skewers Hollywood, Broadway and the critics, balancing its drama with scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny. It's a uniquely propulsive character study about the search for love and adulation, and how each of us defines those words in a world that measures success in Twitter followers. It may be about actors and celebrities, but it's not hard to relate to their struggles.
Each of Inarritu's four previous features has received major Oscar nominations along with numerous additional accolades. (21 Grams and Amores Perros are the most widely seen of the Mexican director's films.) It won't be a surprise if Birdman extends that streak. If it does, it won't be just for the film's considerable technical achievements. Birdman's one-shot illusion exists only to serve the larger aims of the film — mainly to take us deep inside the story so it feels like real life. We experience our days without edits, after all.