Birdman (2014) – Film Review
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone
by Jen Grimble
For decades Michael Keaton has battled with the stereotype that Bruce Wayne left on his career. This is worth remembering when you sit down to watch Birdman. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s triumphant real-time drama, Keaton parallels his actor character, Riggan Thomson, in several ways.
For starters, Riggan finds himself professionally irrelevant after he quits the blockbuster superhero franchise in which he plays the lead. This is parallel number one. Keaton famously did the same with Batman. Secondly, Riggan, like Keaton, is pigeonholed. He is unable to break away from the restrictions of his previous role. This is how Keaton brings his character, and the entire movie, to a new level of alive.
In order to validate his creativity and take back some power, Riggan takes one last stab at the big-time. Throwing his last scraps of cash into a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Through seemingly continuous long-takes, the camera follows Riggan, his 20-something daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), and the actors and stage-hands that fill the back corridors of St. James Theatre. Yet Riggan soon realises he is out of his depth, removing himself from reality by holding imaginary conversations with his superhero alter ego. He visualises flying over Manhattan and exploiting telekinetic powers, all of which seem to reflect Riggan’s battle with dark thoughts.
Through the play, Riggan creates a show-piece for his own restricted abilities. One disastrous event follows another, as his come-back slips through his fingers. So when theatre legend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) joins the production, Riggan hopes for improvement. Yet Shiner is unreliable, unstable and unable to grasp the importance of the play’s success. From lacklustre rehearsals, to the disastrous preview shows, we are lead to opening night with a building sense of dread. Through the uncut scenes, the action appears live, spontaneous and more dramatic. This is a technique Hitchcock and Lumet perfected in the 40s and 50s respectively.
Yet Alejandro González Iñárritu brings youth and vitality to an almost archaic style. Intensity builds as we watch Riggan’s life spiral out of control, erratically following him around the theatre corridors like dogs on a lead. A looming review from New York Times critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), makes the finale totally unpredictable. It is through the strength of the acting, the dialogue and the cinematography, that Birdman leaps to truly masterful. Keaton, Norton and Stone give inspired performances, and like the character he portrays, Keaton battles his past demons right to the end.
This is more than just the story of a has-been actor. This is a complex metaphor for the fickle nature of celebrity and the decay of authentic art. Birdman is a seminal, surreal and comical exploration of fame, greed and ignorance, with the ability to make the audience feel like voyeurs of real action. Explaining Birdman is like describing one of the wonders of the world. You cannot understand its impact until you see it for yourself, because Birdman is an all-star seminar on film-making.