film review: birdman
Stepping out of the theatre after watching Birdman, one thought kept going through my head: where has Michael Keaton been hiding all these years? As one of the most beloved comic actors of the 80s, with iconic films such as Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom, along with playing the Dark Knight in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, he’s definitely got talent: it’s so good to finally see him get the recognition he deserves for his performance in Birdman.
The role of Riggan Thompson in Birdman was practically made for Keaton to play. In a strange moment where art-imitates-life, Riggan is a has-been movie star who is best known for playing the superhero “Birdman” in a blockbuster film franchise. In order to reclaim the fame and glory he once had, and to pave a new path of artistic integrity, he attempts to direct and star in a Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway. In the days leading up to the play’s opening night, Riggan faces a series of crises in the form of confrontations with his fellow actors, his ex-wife, his daughter and his own inner demons as he starts to spiral into insanity.
Best known for his critically acclaimed dramatic films like Babel, Amores Perros and Biutiful, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu couldn’t have strayed further from his normal path if he tried. With Birdman he explores themes of existentialism, fears and relationships, with a touch of bittersweet comedy that more than managers to keep you hooked on every second and every frame. With the accompaniment of an exhilarating drumming score that thumps, cracks and bangs alongside the already thrilling action on screen, Iñárritu squeezes a lot of substance into the film’s running time. Shot in what appears to be a single take but in reality is actually a succession of multiple long takes edited together, we float from scene to scene through the theatre, along the back stage’s twisting corridors and into the bright lights of New York City. The movement is constant and there is never a dull – or still – moment in the whole film.
The characters in Birdman feel larger than life, almost as if they are stepping out of the frame, and at times even seem a little over the top. But due to the voyeuristic feel of the film, and the raw and passionate performances from the stellar cast, you find yourself captivated, believing that their hopes, fears and emotions are real. Birdman’s supporting actors do more than pull their own weight; they allow the film to truly soar. Zach Galifianakis is uncharacteristically subdued as Riggan’s fretful agent; Amy Ryan is lovely as Riggan’s composed ex-wife; Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough take a turn as Riggan’s strong-willed co-stars. But it’s the performances Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan’s fresh out of rehab daughter and personal assistant, and Edward Norton as Mike, a hotshot and hot-headed theatre actor called upon to boost ticket sales, that are the true standouts.
The film’s extended title is The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. This prophecy is fulfilled in what is a cruel twist of irony towards the film’s end. The title could be a nod towards the conceited way that Riggan attempts to find artistic integrity within the play, or perhaps – in a broader sense – it could express the way risk-taking can pay off in the most unexpected ways, much like the huge risks Iñárritu took to make Birdman the spectacular masterpiece that it is.
But the film has a lot more to say than just commenting on the vanity of actors and their struggle for artistic integrity. Throughout the film, subjects like frayed father-daughter relationships, finding one’s purpose in the world, and the fear of not being remembered are all delicately touched upon in very moving ways. In its most shameless moments, Birdman chooses to throw a well-aimed punch at the modern consumer and popular trends, with social media platforms and Marvel superhero movies both at the receiving ends of the heavy blow.
There is certainly something to be explored in the “bird” motif that runs throughout the film. Not only with the literal “birdman” that haunts Riggan’s subconscious, but also with the notion that what Riggan really needs is something to set him free. But what is that exactly? Is it the play? Repairing his relationships with his daughter and ex-wife? Gaining artistic integrity? Finding relevance? Or is it simply letting go of his fears? With the film’s open-ended conclusion, the audience is left to decide for itself.
Birdman levitates above any other film of recent time. With strong performances, nuanced characters, ingenious storytelling and revolutionary camera work, it feels almost too perfect, too breathtaking to be true. Birdman achieves the enviable, managing to be both extremely hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. By taking huge risks, Iñárritu has created an extraordinary film that is truly like no other.