“Birdman” could have easily fallen victim to its own gimmicks and wild ambitions. For starters, it’s an incredibly self-aware film that stars Michael Keaton as a washed-up actor best known for portraying a superhero, which sounds a bit too on-the-nose on paper for the “Batman” star.
The film is shot in such a way that it’s meant to appear as one continuous shot, and the score is essentially just one really long drum solo. Additionally, the film’s full title is “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” which reeks of pretension but actually makes perfect sense by the end credits. In the hands of a less assured director, “Birdman” would surely fail, but with Alejandro González Iñárritu at the helm, the movie is pure cinematic bliss.
We first meet Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) as he levitates (yes, levitates) in his dressing room with only the gruff voice that exists within his head to keep him company. Thompson is a movie star who seems to have vanished from the public eye since the wildly popular “Birdman” series was released some years ago. In an attempt to win back his spotlight or just prove something to himself, he stages an elaborate Broadway production based on a Raymond Carver short story that he plans to produce, direct, and star in.
Keaton’s performance is bold, unapologetic and, best of all, just plain entertaining. The role is quite complex, as Thompson seems to fade in and out of reality. His “Birdman” character seems to have crossed over into his real life and manifests itself in stressful moments. It’s an alter ego of sorts; Birdman’s voice acts as an entirely unique personality that exists within him. Is Thompson schizophrenic, or is Birdman simply a manifestation of the mind caused by Thompson’s overwhelming audacity?
Besides Keaton, the supporting cast is arguably the film’s next greatest asset. Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts all turn in terrific performances, but Edward Norton steals the show. Norton’s take on an over-the-top method stage actor is a breath of fresh air and probably the best performance of his career. The playful exchanges between him and Keaton as they rehearse had me and the audience in stitches.
During the press conference following the screening, I asked Norton if he had any particular inspiration for the character, to which he replied, “I basically just looked four feet to my left at Alejandro…I’m wearing his scarf in the movie, I’m wearing his jacket, everything I say in the movie I’ve heard him say or I know he wants to say.”
This led Iñárritu to interject with his favourite on-set moment which occurred during the scene where Norton questions Keaton’s direction choices: “I was explaining to Edward how the movement of the camera works and everything and he began to question me about it … so suddenly he was basically directing me saying what the actor was saying and I was looking at the page saying ‘oh my god this is a mirror in a mirror in a mirror.'”
Some of the film’s best moments are when it leaves our world and veers off into the weird and wild unknown. The scenes that feature Keaton battling the voices in his head are full of magical realism. At one point, Iñárritu chooses to break the fourth wall and create a diegetic moment in which the film’s drummer actually appears on screen. This interruption could have taken the viewer out of the film, but in context it works and adds to the meticulously orchestrated madness.
The camerawork throughout the film is breathtaking. Every sequence drips with chaos and energy, as the camera forces its way into the action. The smooth, sprawling transitions from one scene to the next are visually impressive and fit the tone set by the frenetic score. These elements combine to form a style that is unique and a technical marvel.
In addition to the chaotic structure, the sharp, funny, and occasionally revelatory dialogue keeps the film moving fast. We learn what we know about Thompson and those who inhabit his life through meaningful exchanges, which is how filmmaking is supposed to work but has become rare and worthy of praise in a market saturated with big budget blockbusters and their sequels.
“Birdman” is very much about these topics without ever explicitly stating it; it’s about as meta as it gets and functions as a send-up of the very idea of criticism. In the bottom right corner of the mirror in Thompson’s dressing room, there is a note visible throughout the film that says, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,” which would be the film’s thesis, if it had one. At the press conference, Iñárritu further commented on this notion by stating that “the film is what it is” and no amount of criticism can change that. At times, the film plays like catharsis for the director, and while that’s true to an extent, there’s much more to it than that.
In the case of “Birdman,” this critic can’t recommend it enough.