Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up actor famous for playing a superhero called Birdman in three films back in the early nineties. Dogged by his dubious past success, and longing for respect, he mounts a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver story, and struggles to fly from his own self-obsessed insecurity.
The most pressing reason to see Birdman is the way it was filmed. The movie consists entirely of a series of long tracking shots, each one around twenty minutes in length. These, in turn, have been edited together to create the impression of one continuous take. In addition to making Birdman a masterpiece of cinematography, the approach makes the film feel like it’s a stream of consciousness.
I don’t want to give away too much about the plot of Birdman. Some people will view it as nothing more than a character study of a schizophrenic man, and they are are free to do so, because the film is understandable when viewed through that lens. If, on the other hand, you take all the film’s events at face value—if you want to believe that Riggin is telekinetic, and capable of flying around Broadway—the universal themes remain intact, and are even more obvious.
Micheal Keaton is vulnerable as Riggan, while still retaining his old live-wire edge. Birdman is a comeback of sorts for the actor. He famously donned a superhero’s cowl in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, which ushered in the modern age of big-budget blockbuster movies and their sequels. Today that kind of movie is adored by the masses and derided by lovers of serious cinema, who feel the entire medium is on the line. And so, Keaton was uniquely positioned to star in Birdman, which is partly an examination of celebrity, and how it complicates art.
The rest of the cast is solid without exception. As Riggan’s amiable best friend and producer, Zach Galifanakis, surprises by being the one aspect of the film that’s down-to-earth. Emma Stone also caught my attention, as Riggan’s neglected daughter, a recovering addict. When Riggan runs through Times Square in his underpants (I promise there’s a good explanation for that) the video goes viral, and Stone delivers the film’s most memorable line: “This is power.” But the biggest standout in the supporting cast is Edward Norton, hilarious as a famous, ego-maniacal actor.
Expect from Birdman a pitch-black comedy/drama that takes brief detours into fantasy. Love it or hate it, I guarantee you have never seen anything like it. It puts you out of balance, and it’s almost impossible to predict what will happen from moment to moment. Call it surreal, or call it magical-realist; interpret the enigmatic ending how you like. What matters is emotional reality, not the question of whether the events we’re watching are objective or subjective. Birdman contains almost nothing but character development. If it’s rough around the edges, it’s clearly by design, because it’s also highly disciplined, an almost unheard-of accomplishment for a gonzo film like this that might have been shot inside someone’s head. The soundtrack, consisting mainly of jazz drums, feels both messy and syncopated, and completes the film as a genuine work of art.
Finally, if you have ever been tempted to go into show business, watching Birdman will help keep you far away from the industry. The film feels devastatingly accurate, and I’m pretty sure its depiction of theater people is so universal it would resonate with Shakespeare if he were resurrected tomorrow. Birdman contains relatable themes, but being in the spotlight clearly makes a person’s personal problems a whole lot worse.
Birdman is rated R for nudity, language, and sexual material. Leave the kids at home—they wouldn’t understand the movie anyway.
*Red Band Trailer*