Birdman is a film like no other. It’s the type of experience that will have you leaving the cinema dissecting and discussing what it was about, and wondering how such a technical feat was achieved. It’s a triumph that everyone, from the sublime ensemble cast to the miracle-working cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, deserves plaudit for.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a forgotten movie star, whose defining achievement was the titular superhero movie franchise that finished in the 90s. We join Riggan on the verge of a breakdown, tormented by his Birdman alter ego. He desperately tries to rekindle his flailing career by writing, directing and starring in a theatre adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It quickly becomes clear that the play is a mere vanity project; it means everything to Riggan, but little to anyone else as he puts everything on the line.
A central message of the film is that love and admiration are two very different things, and confusing the two is one of many mistakes that Riggan makes. He prioritises popularity over respect, and is ultimately a man who cares more about his face on the front pages than artistic integrity, or indeed his family. His reasoning for refinancing what was to become his daughter’s home becomes a monologue about George Clooney receiving more publicity than him after sharing a near-death experience.
Riggan Thomson is a celebrity as opposed to a great actor, shown up by the talents of Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner. He is an embodiment of entitled movie stars – as clinically put by Lindsay Duncan’s spiteful performance as a top New York Times theatre critic.
The same cannot be said of the character’s actor, however, the brilliant Michael Keaton, due to his mesmerising performance as the self-absorbed, mentally unstable Riggan. Keaton makes a strong case for any Best Actor award this season. The parallels between Keaton and Thomson have been widely commented on, and Birdman should rekindle Keaton’s own career to heights unreached since last playing Batman in 1992 (the same year mentioned as the last Birdman film to be released).
The supporting cast is similarly captivating, particularly Edward Norton as the serious method actor who only feels alive onstage, and Emma Stone, who gives great depth to the role of Thompson’s neglected, drug-addicted, daughter Sam. Norton and Stone’s scenes together on the theatre roof are amongst the film’s very finest.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s directs with a keen sense of fun – unforeseen from his past films Babel and Biutiful – through playful real-life references and metafictional moments, such as the pulsating drums that score the film occasionally appearing onscreen as well, blurring the lines between fiction and reality.
The script, which Iñárritu co-wrote, has impressively built-in layers, with Riggan’s play, and in particular its closing scene, coming to reflect different aspects of his personal life from the real to the surreal. His internal feelings of insignificance and anger at the brewing relationship between Shiner and Sam are not moments of acting, only reacting through a different medium.
Visually and stylistically, Birdman is nothing short of revolutionary. While most films find their shape in the editing room, with scenes pieced together meticulously, Iñárritu and DP Emanuel Lubezki (who has appropriate experience with Gravity on his CV) visualise the film from start to finish in the shooting process, and so a story set over several successive nights seems to somehow take place in a single long take. This form perfectly complements the content, as the audience feels like it is watching a play, living in the moment with these characters as they frantically rush around backstage, fighting and crying and having sex in the dimly lit dressing rooms and narrow corridors. The idea of following a character has never been carried out so literally, nor so stunningly captivating in aesthetic.
Iñárritu maintains the ambiguity of Birdman’s presence, and as Riggan retains his superpowers, viewers will question everything they see until the closing shot and long afterwards. Is Birdman a psychological presence? Or has Thomson’s ego manifested to the extent that the voice in his head has become a living breathing character? Whatever the answer, Iñárritu allows Keaton the freedom to fly. He does it because he can. It’s real for Riggan, and in his world, that’s all that matters.
It’s the type of experience that will have you leaving the cinema dissecting and discussing what it was about, and wondering how such a technical feat was achieved
The outrageous flying sequence through New York towards the climax reminds that, like the superhero cinema it satirises, Birdman is only a film after all, albeit a brilliant one. On the basis of this technical marvel, Iñárritu can reach heights others can only hope to half in altitude, as the writer/director has created an astonishing, faultless film in every observable aspect and beyond.