Although Michael Keaton claims that “In terms of parallels, I’ve never identified less with a character than with Riggan”, there are some obvious comparisons between Michael Keaton and Riggan Thomson, Keaton’s character in Birdman. Riggan is a Hollywood actor whose career seems to have peaked with three “Birdman” comic book movies, similar to Keaton being remembered for his Batman movies. Trying to achieve artistic validation, he is adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway show based off of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. When one of the actors is injured during a run-through, he is replaced by Broadway superstar Mike Shiner (Edward Norton – no stranger to the superhero genre with 2008’s The Incredible Hulk). Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the story takes us through the play’s troubled production, previews, and opening night.
One of the more novel aspects of the film is that it was filmed in such a way where a majority of the film appears to unfold in one continuous shot. This idea allows for the film to move continuously through the story, which creates an incredibly immersive experience. This is executed remarkably well, with the cuts only becoming apparent if you’re looking for them and have a reasonable amount of production knowledge. Not only this, but unlike many other films that have attempted this concept, Birdman utilizes its full potential by shooting on multiple locations. Somehow, the cinematography manages to be gorgeous the whole way through. This is insanely impressive. Making a movie like this, there is very little room for error, and Birdman makes no mistakes.
The performances here are some of the best of the year. Michael Keaton not only plays Riggan, but also plays a physical and metaphorical embodiment of Birdman, who taunts Riggan constantly throughout the film. Keaton holds the film together in a way that not many actors would be able to do, creating a character so three-dimensional that it’s almost as if he isn’t acting. Mike Shiner makes things difficult for his co-stars in the play due to his complete devotion to method, an interesting parallel considering Edward Norton is often cited as being hard to work with. Norton creates a magical blend of annoying charisma in the film, and is absolutely captivating every frame he’s on screen. Emma Stone (who is a part of the recent Spider-man reboot) plays Riggan’s daughter and a recovering drug addict, and demonstrates some fantastic range she has yet to show in her career. Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, and Andrea Riseborough round out the supporting cast, each being given proper time to create fully-developed characters.
Another unique facet of this film is that the entire score is performed on a drum set. This creates a sort of frenetic energy that ensures the film maintains a fast pace and allows Keaton’s character to seem all the more desperate. It also enhances the surrealistic atmosphere that is present throughout the rest of the film. The film likes to toy with your perception as an audience member by showing you fantastical events and then bringing things rapidly back to reality, allowing you to establish what really happened. The movie ends on one of these surreal notes that lets you figure out for yourself what exactly happened. While some people may have been turned off by the small and large surrealistic elements of the film, I thought that it added another fascinating layer to the story that will likely allow for numerous viewings.
On a personal level, I really enjoyed the themes that were explored with this film. I really appreciated the exploration about the idea of what makes art valid, and I really liked the commentary that the film provided on art criticism. Birdman also talks a lot about the state of the superhero genre, and that’s a topic that I have a lot of interest in. I loved everything about this film. I haven’t seen a film so masterfully crafted and unique in a very long time. It’s an instant classic. 10/10.