January 4, 2015 Leave a comment
More than twenty years after Birdman 3 marked the end of his career as a superhero, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is still trying to rebuild his reputation as a serious actor. His latest and most drastic attempt involves staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for which he will serve as writer, director and star. But while Riggan may be through with Birdman, Birdman isn’t quite through with him; as Riggan works to resolve conflicts with his esteemed co-star (Edward Norton), snooty New York Times critic Tabatha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) and his estranged, drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), the spectre of Birdman works to undermine his self-confidence and erode his resistance to a fourth movie.
There’s nothing quite like Birdman; whether it’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s hypnotic long shots, editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione’s seamless stitching together of scenes or writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s trans-narrative approach to storytelling, Birdman pushes boundaries until it defies categorisation altogether. As the camera follows Riggan in and around the theatre in what appears to be one uninterrupted take, with little distinction between on- and backstage drama, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. As such, when the film opens with our (reluctant) hero levitating a few feet off the floor, it’s not entirely clear what exactly you’re looking at. Is Riggan imagining these powers or is he genuinely manifesting telekinetic abilities?
These powers continue to develop throughout the movie, as Riggan uses them to move various items with his mind and eventually take to the skies in full-blown flight (as you’ll have likely seen in the trailer). It’s also possible that he used them to incapacitate one of his weaker actors — though it might just as easily have been simple sabotage or coincidence. Now in need of a replacement he hires Mike, one of his other cast-members’ other halves who just happens to be a renowned method actor himself. Keaton and Norton are terrific together, their rivalry compelling in its own right but further enhanced by their obvious onscreen chemistry. This is ultimately Keaton’s film, but when Mark gives Riggan a crash course in acting Norton owns the scene. The whole ensemble deserves mention, though, with Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts impressing as their respective girlfriends, and Zach Galifianakis displaying real gravitas as Riggan’s lawyer-producer best friend.
Birdman can be enjoyed as a bravura and increasingly bizarre black comedy, but it also holds up to a little more scrutiny. Like Riggan Thomson, Michael Keaton is best known for playing a superhero. The parallels don’t end there either, as both hung up their cowls in 1992 and since struggled to either redefine themselves or recapture their early success. It’s clear that Iñárritu has something to say on the subject of superhero movies — Norton and Stone are no strangers to the genre, while Iron Man and X-Men: First Class are referenced in conversation — but it’s difficult to be completely certain what his message might actually be. To call Birdman an attack on the genre or those who engage with it seems overly simplistic, but it’s certainly raises a few pertinent questions. Iñárritu also has something to say about acting in general, about fame and fortune, and about those whose job it is to criticise the performances of others.
Birdman isn’t going to appeal to everyone — it’s unashamedly enigmatic and esoteric — but those willing to engage with it ought to find something to ponder and puzzle over. Rather than being the closing statement that many would like it to be, however, Birdman is merely the start of a much larger conversation. This isn’t a conclusion; it’s a curiosity.