Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Review
The public and critics love a triumphant off screen comeback, just ask Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck, and this year’s personal tale of redemption primed for Oscar glory is undoubtedly Michael Keaton’s in Birdman. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film has a cast and crew at the absolute peak of their powers, a rare combination that doesn’t just let the film take off, but soar majestically.
The most notable element of Keaton’s role is how self-referential to the man himself it is. Akin to Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Keaton channels his own situation for his turn as washed up Riggan Thomson. Like Keaton, Thomson made his name in Hollywood through a blockbuster superhero franchise, Birdman, before disowning the role at its peak. Twenty years later we find a haggard Riggan attempting to redefine himself as a serious actor through his Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In theory the play seems like a straight shot at critical success for Riggan, however an estranged daughter, warring cast and his own alter ego, Birdman, threaten to derail his “chance to finally do some work that actually means something”.
Birdman is Keaton’s film, and casting him as Riggan is a masterful case of art imitating life. The irony of Riggan’s predicament isn’t lost on Keaton who plays the part with an awareness of the comic absurdity of it all. Not only does his own career mirror Riggan’s, but Keaton naturally has the weathered look befitting of the part. In the hands of a different actor, one alien to Riggan’s situation, you could see the role becoming overly sombre and the darker sides of the character’s neurosis dominating. Instead Keaton manages to be funny, delirious and tragic all at once, in fact Keaton’s performance is so rounded and warmly inviting that you’d be excused for thinking Keaton is some sort of lost acting genius of a generation.
What guides Keaton’s performance to be as entertaining as it is comes down to Iñárritu’s ambitious narrative choices. Rather than settle on pure comedy or grave drama in the mould of similar personal stories such as Black Swan or The Wrestler, Iñárritu creates a story that’s reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s great films The Apartment or Sunset Boulevard in that it successfully combines satire, laughs and genuine, relatable characters.
Inarritu goes one better as he adds a healthy dose of dreamy surrealism that playfully externalises Riggan’s crumbling mind. There’s a great moment where Riggan’s stares into the mirror pondering whether he’s finally succeeded in becoming a credible actor, only to see Birdman, the ghost of his blockbuster past, in full costume on the toilet in his reflection. The Birdman, who stalks and antagonises him throughout, is literally shitting on his dreams.
While clearly Birdman is Keaton’s vehicle, it’s also his two co-stars who dazzle in the slightly insane world of theatre. Keaton’s troubled daughter, Sam Thomson (Emma Stone) is brilliant as the outsider looking in at the narcissistic delusions of grandeur that fill the decadent theatre’s backstage. Stone is the only one with the bottle to challenge rather than massage the actors’ egos, including her father who she puts down with a brilliant tirade culminating in the line “Nobody gives a shit but you! And let’s face it, dad, you are not doing this for the sake of art. You are doing this because you want to feel relevant again”. Stone’s character also works as a necessary anchor back to reality for Riggan leaving him with the dilemma of whether to choose adulation from the masses or his daughter, simply the price of fame.
Elsewhere Ed Norton parodies himself as Riggan’s troublesome co-star Mike Shiner. Shiner is as haphazard and volatile as Keaton but even funnier, never more so than when his acting methods stretch to drinking real gin and attempting to actually have sex with his female co-stars on stage. Keaton and Norton work superbly in tandem as a ridiculous double act culminating in them grappling on the floor in their underpants. Like Stone, Norton also functions to challenge Riggan and add to his growing confusion over what he actually wants from his play.
For all the characters to interact successfully and work in tandem, Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki film the entire story as if it were one long take with tracking shots galore and virtually no cuts, a technique most famously used by Hitchcock in Rope. This long take lets the film flow energetically and seamlessly, reflecting the true nature of how we digest life, in one uninterrupted take. The tracking camera marauds unerringly through the theatre’s corridors along with an incessant street drum beat in tow that acts to build a claustrophobic intensity and ominous, palpable tension working up to Riggan’s make or break moment on stage.
As the camera tracks Riggan on to the stage for his final bow it becomes apparent that despite all the scripts relevant forays into the value of blockbusters, viral success and the role of critics in the world of Arts, it’s all irrelevant. This is the neurotic and narcissistic story of Riggan and his need to find redemption.
Riggan’s final vindication for his existence is his and his alone, the success or failure of everyone else is superfluous. There’s something gloriously liberating and triumphant in a tale that’s so deeply personal and egotistical. Perhaps Birdman is a little too self-indulgent in its championing of the artsy, luvvie world, but Keaton’s meta-existential crisis transcends the needs of an ageing film star. Riggan’s plight is a timeless one, boiling down to the universal human need to leave a memorable mark on the world. What Riggan hopes for, Keaton has actually gone and achieved with Birdman.
10/10- Move over Batman, The Birdman has Risen