Wow. I just left the cinema after watching Birdman and I was blown away. It’s easy to see why it has been so heavily rewarded in both the Golden Globes and BAFTA nominations, and I would be surprised if the Academy Awards doesn’t follow suit.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an ageing actor who has enjoyed massive cinematic success some twenty years prior portraying superhero Birdman. In a bid to reignite his waning career on a more critically reputable path, he is directing himself in the lead role of his own rewrite of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Also starring in it are Broadway newcomer Lesley (Naomi Watts), Riggan’s romantic-interest Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and late replacement actor and seat-filler Mike Shiner (Edward Norton in excellent form). Also in the mix is daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who is now working as Riggan’s P.A., and Zach Galifianakis as Brandon Vander Hey, Riggan’s lawyer.
It’s a film that’s hard to pigeonhole and I’m not sure I really want to. I’d hate to call it a comedy, only for someone to read this article and feel hard done by by the lack of belly laughs. Then again, it’s hardly a superhero film and you’d be bitterly underwhelmed should you think this is what you’ll be getting.
One thing that will strike you when you watch it is the use of long single-shot scenes. Actually, the film is essentially edited to look like a complete one-shot, though there are some subtle cuts where scenes have been interlinked. Whilst this technique is something I favour (for a great example of this you should take a look at the excellent opening sequence of Orson Welles masterpiece “Touch of Evil”), it can also be used as a means to show off by a director. I’m a big fan of theatre, so since this film deals with the run up to the opening night of a play, on a basic level I can make a connection with the desire to not have a cut between scenes as they run into each other. That’s clearly not what the director is doing here though. For me, in fact, the purpose of these long takes is to build up the relentlessness of the pressure Riggan is under as portions of his life blur into one another and his less-than-clear thoughts are muddied by his unwanted past as a Hollywood superhero and furthermore by an unexpected pregnancy. It’s a really effective method of storytelling and they completely nail it.
I find the casting of Keaton in this role as a masterstroke of genius too. Whilst he was one of the first big-screen superheroes, his subsequent roles have never looked like troubling the box office as much as his turn in Tim Burton’s Batman, released in 1989. Only Christopher Reeve had been part of a bigger superhero success when he took on the role of Superman, and Keaton’s career trajectory ended up mirroring somewhat Reeve’s problematic career post-Kent. There have been a smattering of successes (Jackie Brown, Toy Story 3 and The Other Guys), but with this in mind I don’t think Birdman’s likeness to the 1989 Dark Knight is a coincidence. This all makes Keaton’s portrayal of a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown (or worse) all the more effective, as he struggles to find relevance amongst his peers. It is ironic that this film is doing exactly that for Keaton.
The real-life-to-character comparisons don’t stop with Keaton. Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner is a character whose talent is only marred by his reputation for being difficult to work with. It’s almost as if the Norton and the screenwriting team of Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo are having a bit of a chuckle at our expense. Norton recently had another reflective statement when interviewed by NPR about his experience when pulling out of the Avengers series of films, which ironically was the reason he was able to schedule in this film (along with both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel). Clearly the fear for him was that his life would be consumed by a cycle of filming and promoting, when he could instead be part of several films that are both critically successful and reputable. The feeling I got when watching Shiner develop as a character was they had written him as the person everyone thinks Norton is, rather than what he is really like. With both Norton and Keaton both seemingly playing characters criticising the downsides of the superhero film franchises they were involved with, I wonder how Emma Stone, and more so her boyfriend Andrew Garfield, feel about the underlying commentary.
I’m going to single out Zach Galifianakis’s performance as a highlight. People know him very well for his character Alan Garner in the Hangover trilogy, which he effectively reprised in Due Date and The Campaign, and I was a little sceptical of his casting here. Harking back to Keaton, this is Galifianakis shedding his skin as proving he can take of a serious role with great aplomb if given the chance. A great choice for him at this stage in his career.
Of course, this multilayered overthinking of all the characters is all well and good, but the film has to be good to justify it. Otherwise you end up with something like David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, which I will go on record as saying is one of the worst films of all time. Fortunately it’s completely not the case with Birdman.There are some brilliant moments of hilarity in here, some surprising and well-handled special effects and a few intensely emotional back-and-forths from actors giving their everything to their art.
This is the first truly great film I’ve seen this year. I can’t recommend it enough.
Birman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is out now at cinemas across the UK.