Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis
Genre: Comedy/ Drama
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) once played an iconic superhero character called Birdman, but now his career is in the doldrums. To breathe new life into his career and prove to the world that he is a true artist he is writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play. However a last minute change of casting leads to the casting of Mike Shiner (Norton), a notoriously difficult stage actor who takes his craft extremely seriously further complicates preparations for opening night as Riggan struggles to maintain his relationships with his daughter (Emma Strone), Ex-wife (Amy Ryan), current girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), his lawyer (Galifianakis), a notoriously hard to please critic (Lindsay Duncan) and most importantly; his own sanity.
Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu has never been afraid to take us to dark places, and thankfully after the bloated and often empty Babel he decided to leave the network narrative alone. Well, now he once again returns to English language films and what a triumphant return it is! Birdman (or indeed its other title The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a perfect combination of style and substance that is a dark examination of fame, the film industry and its effects on the human condition and also (this is a first for Iñárritu) often very funny.
Films that take a dark swipe at the egotistical and self obsessed nature of individuals involved in the film industry are of course nothing new, and being an industry that pretty much leaves an open goal of an invitation for mockery and satirical attacks it does not take that much creativity to make a film that just confirms what we all know anyway. However, Birdman manages to feel fresh and very intimate in its dissection of the mindset of the industry and all the narrative’s characters that are in some way a part of it and is quite simply a master class in acting and film making from all involved in the making of it. Current Hollywood franchises and various actors are not safe from the darkly comical swipes in the razor sharp script.
A film like this would not be a success without great performance and the entire cast deliver; of course we all know of the parallels between Riggan and his actual career, but Michael Keaton is exceptional. Appearing in nearly every scene, he commands the screen, bringing sympathy to the character of Riggan despite his obvious arrogance, vanity and self obsession. There are moments when Keaton puts his heart and soul into his performance and reminds us all that he is a great actor, and the awards nominations are well and truly deserved.
The rest of the cast all also deliver superb performances and though their roles are sometimes limited in terms of screen time they all play a key part in the narrative and Riggan’s emotional journey. Edward Norton is the stand out as a character not to dissimilar to his actual self and he provides a lot of the comedy. Also Zach Galifianakis and Emma Stone, actors who I have never been a huge fan of in terms of their dramatic range, are excellent in their supporting but vital roles.
Birdman is also a technical marvel; with clever editing the entire film is pretty much filmed in one take, despite the fact the actual narrative takes place over several days. Not only does this place a greater demand on the actors and further demonstrates just how exceptional all their performances are, but whereas with some films such techniques would lead to unnecessary distractions, in Birdman as the camera continuously swoops through the labyrinthine theatre it only enhances the audiences emotional journey that is shared with the protagonist, as we both have a sense of inescapable claustrophobia that works on both a mental and literal level for the film’s protagonist.
Iñárritu is never afraid to have fun and the occasional appearance of a drummer that is essentially playing the film’s soundtrack and quirky characters delivering witty and sharp lines of dialogue add to the comic elements of what is a film that works on so many levels.
Some may argue that Birdman is pretentious, and from over hearing the conversations as I left the cinema it does appear to be a tad divisive, but for me the best films lead to different viewers taking different things away from the viewing experience. Well Birdman is exactly that and an intelligent, razor-sharp and insightful examination of so many themes and ideas that I am sure repeat viewings will bring even more.
The ending is without a doubt left open to interpretation, but for me this only proves that Iñárritu treats the audience with respect in allowing them to make their own minds up of what happens and what it all means. For me it is an extremely satisfying and appropriate ending that fits perfectly with what has happened in the narrative up to that point. Of the entire Oscar nominated films I would argue that Birdman deserves to win everything as its originality, intelligence, creativity, exceptional performances, and the fact it is an incredible achievement from a technical point of view make it stand out far further than any of its fellow awards hopefuls.
A cinematic masterpiece that works on so many levels; Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (the latter is a less marketable but more appropriate title) is deeply intelligent and highly creative film making of the highest order.