‘Birdman’ is a beautifully constructed film centering on the life of Riggan (Michael Keaton), a washed up old actor desperate to reclaim the fame and recognition of his glory years. Set almost entirely in the theater where Riggan is holding his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s play (a transparent stab at critical acclaim), ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, the film explores the various virtues and flaws of the human spirit, and the differing methods individuals seek out to cope with their suffering. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS.
As a newcomer to the style and vision of Mexican director/writer Alejandro González Iñárritu, I was in awe throughout the 119 minutes running time. The opening credits gripped my attention with their subtle intertextuality, as the titles appear in individual letters, matching the loud twang of cymbals in a rhythmic pattern that calls to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Pierrot Le Fou’. From this point onwards, the sweeping camera movements, long tracking shots and minimal editing style all merge together to create an engaging, intense and at times even hypnotic narrative framework that grabs your attention and refuses to let it go until the final frame dissolves into darkness. The almost constant diegetic music – emanating from a pair of free form drummers placed around the set – increases the tempo even further, whilst the narrow hallways in the theater conjure up a sense of confined, claustrophobic space, all resulting in a rapidly evolving hysteria of images, sounds and movements that subtly and suddenly place the viewer in the crumbling and chaotic mindset of Riggan.
Michael Keaton’s performance further enables the viewer to identify with his numerous issues, as he hits every note with precision and an unnerving injection of honesty, perhaps because his fall from stardom after playing Batman in the early 1990’s allows him to truly understand Riggan’s struggle as an actor. Undoubtedly he is playing a role, however this thought slips from your mind as the film unfolds; it seems as if he possesses the rare ability to fully inhabit his character by temporarily suspending his own identity and shedding every aspect of self-consciousness that threatens to taint his performance. Subsequently, the spectator would struggle not to feel a high degree of sympathy and empathy for every aspect of Riggan’s personality. His delusional and dangerous ultra ego clearly stems from a deeply rooted desire to “matter”, as his daughter so aptly puts it (Emma Stone), whilst his weak attempt to create art is nothing more than a reflection of his brave optimism in the face of failure. Although these are mere interpretations, they are valuable as they illustrate the vantage point that the viewer is likely to witness the film from. If told differently, Riggan would be a deeply unremarkable character, however with a rich and intricate understanding of his emotional state and the motivation behind his actions, he becomes a strongly relatable embodiment of human frailty that is bound to teach the audience something about themselves, provided they are able to truly open themselves up to the content.
The supporting cast is excellent, feeding into the film’s thriving sense of realism (a term I use to describe the film’s believability instead of its adherence to reality). Emma Stone captures the essence of her role as an emotionally neglected girl with a bright, attractive personality and a kind, loving heart, whilst Edward Norton is electrifying as the eccentric, offbeat actor damaged by fame and an inability to achieve an erection off-stage. As a result of Iñárritu’s penchant for long takes, both stars are able to connect with the core of their characters without the threat of interruption, giving rise to what could be described as their most impressive performances to date.
Beyond my sheer appreciation for this film lies a degree of frustration. Admittedly I admire the ending: it is bold, unconventional and a brilliant way to avoid spoon-feeding the audience a neat and tidy resolution – a Hollywood practice I firmly stand against. On the other hand, I feel a deeply rooted restlessness inside of me as I wonder what fate Riggan met after diving out of the window across from his hospital bed. Not only does this lack of clarity call into question his own mortality; it also demands the audience to speculate over the very nature of the film, and thus Iñárritu’s overarching message as a filmmaker. There is the possibility that he is making a powerful statement against our celebrity culture, insofar as he is depicting a man driven to insanity by his desperate need for shallow recognition, something that the media and society in general perpetuates as wildly important. Equally, however, Iñárritu could be suggesting that Riggan truly is Birdman (an interpretation supported by Emma Stone’s smile as she glances out of the hospital window), and thus asserting the notion that we can control our own fate by harnessing our inner power. But as difficult to take as this ending is I cannot argue against it, for in refusing to give us answers and encouraging critical thinking Iñárritu is creating what I believe to be true art: something thought-provoking and polarizing.
IMDB rating: 8.7/10
Personal rating: 9/10