Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Often when an actor is cast to play an iconic character such as a superhero, it is very difficult for that actor to break away from the role. This is something that Mark Hamill learned when his post-Star Wars career found little success due to his identity being so strongly linked to that of Luke Skywalker. Similarly Bela Lugosi gave such a stellar performance as Dracula that he was forever typecast and cursed to live out the rest of his career playing minor parts in lesser horror films. Michael Keaton suffered the same fate when he left the role of Batman behind in 1992 only for his career to be met with modest success afterwards, an experience that doubtless provided him with a valuable insight into the tortured unhinged psyche of washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson.
Riggan, a role that surely must have been written specially for Keaton, is a former movie star whose career peaked decades earlier when he played the iconic superhero Birdman. Having experienced little success in the years since he left the role behind, he makes a last-ditch effort to save himself from irrelevance, obscurity and mediocrity by writing, directing and starring in a theatrical adaptation of Ray Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This proves to be a tortuous ordeal as he pours everything he has into this production and is faced with family issues, difficult actors, a disdainful critic, and his own deranged mind. His thoughts are constantly at war with one another as he battles with the abusive voice of his alter ego Birdman and his grip on reality loosens as he imagines himself to be a super-heroic figure, performing feats of levitation and telekinesis. Riggan undergoes a psychological breakdown and a lamenting downfall befitting a hero of a Shakespearean tragedy, an appropriate comparison given the inclusion of Macbeth’s soliloquy later on in the film.
Keaton delivers the performance of his career as he impeccably portrays the fanatical personality of Riggan Thomson complete with the erratic mood swings, the conflicting personalities and the desperation of a man at the end of his tether. Riggan finds himself in a despairing state as his ego is constantly undermined by antagonistic forces. There is the abrasive actor whose undercutting criticisms challenge Riggan’s creative vision. There is also the pompous New York Times critic who resents Riggan for his impudence and ignorance. Most demoralising of all is the cruel voice of Birdman whose abuse constantly puts Riggan down and who insists that he is out of his depth and must return to the glory days of Birdman. So extreme is this inner turmoil that the lines between Riggan and Birdman become blurred and one starts to wonder whether the two are even interchangeable.
Iñárritu’s direction complements Riggan’s rapid and irrational mentality as he shoots and edits the film to look like one continuous take, crammed with paranoid shakes of the camera and schizophrenic close-ups. The camera moves haphazardly from room to room and follows character after character as hours or even entire days fly by in a single motion. This is a film that never stops moving and that never allows the audience to feel comfortable. The chaotic and frenzied tone that Iñárritu conveys deftly hides the fact that every scene must have had to be precisely timed and rigorously choreographed in order for them to be properly captured. The inclusion of an original score played mostly on the drums also adds to the hectic tone.
Although Birdman is very much Keaton’s film the supporting cast is also worthy of praise, particularly Edward Norton and Emma Stone (who, perhaps not coincidentally, are also famous for starring in superhero films). Norton plays the brilliant but unstable and hot-blooded method actor Mike who constantly challenges Riggan as a writer, director and actor, and who actively insists on drinking real gin and on being threatened by a more realistic looking gun while on stage in order for the act to “feel real”. Stone plays Riggan’s daughter Sam, a recovering drug addict who resents her father, despite not quite knowing why, and who lashes out because of him. Both actors portray their characters with great intensity and fury while also allowing some humanity to balance out the absurdity. The cast also includes Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend and producer trying to stop everything from falling apart, Naomi Watts as an aspiring actress finally getting her big break on Broadway, Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s discontented girlfriend, Lindsay Duncan as the critic who has set out to destroy Riggan, and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife who perhaps knows him better than he knows himself.
Birdman is a challenging film that raises many questions. How much of what happens takes place in Riggan’s head and how much of it is real? Are Riggan and Birdman separate personalities or are they one and the same? What happens at the end and what does it mean? These questions are never given any explicit answers and perhaps they aren’t supposed to. After all it isn’t called The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance for nothing. Half of the fun is in not knowing. Regardless, Birdman is an immensely creative and compelling film that invites the viewer to not just watch, but rather to experience a story. It is a unique and unusual film that can understandably be daunting or even frustrating for anyone more preferential towards films with traditional narrative structures. Having only seen it once I cannot claim to have completely figured this film out and maybe I never will. However I can claim to have been exceedingly fascinated, mentally stimulated, and thoroughly entertained by this film and I look forward to the prospect of watching it again.