Birdman review

Keaton dances with the devil by the pale footlights

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As openings go, Birdman’s is a corker. Sitting cross-legged in his backstage dressing room at the St. James Theater, Broadway, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is meditating. He also happens to be hovering three feet off the floor. It’s an image that might not surprise viewers in this age of superheroes who have made the extraordinary seem ordinary, but each detail within the frame – from the cluttered paraphernalia to Riggan’s pouched skin and general dishevelment – screams humdrum reality.

The juxtaposition jolts, and more so when you consider Birdman Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance, to use the full title, is the fifth movie (and first English-language effort) from why-so-serious? Spanish director Alejandro González Iñárritu. After Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful, the effect is akin to seating yourself down for Mike Leigh’s latest and seeing Timothy Spall fire eye-lasers at a giant robot.

Riggan, it transpires, is a washed-up, embittered, self-pitying movie actor who’s risking what little he has left on adapting, producing, directing and starring in Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Back in the early ’90s, Riggan was the evil-battling star of Hollywood’s Birdman franchise; now he’s taking to the boards to chase not monomaniacal supervillains or Earth-destroying aliens but a target more elusive – credibility.

We meet Riggan as the previews are upon him, and as he begins to swirl, ever faster, in a vortex of artistic and personal despair. A key actor has dropped out of the production to be replaced by a prissy Broadway star (Edward Norton). Riggan’s daughter/assistant (Emma Stone), meanwhile, is fresh out of rehab and back on the weed, while his relationship with a younger co-star (Andrea Riseborough) is in meltdown.

All of which is nothing to the internal battle being waged within our hero’s mind – the gravelly voice of his alter ego, Birdman, is piping up to stress Riggan’s superiority (he mocks Robert Downey Jr.’s “tin-man get-up”, snarling, “That clown doesn’t have half your talent!”) and berate his weaknesses.

At once a backstage melodrama, a showbiz satire, a relationship drama, a deconstruction of the human ego and, yes, a superhero movie replete with eye-saucering set-pieces, Birdman is frenetic, splenetic and dizzyingly inventive. It’s also just plain dizzying. As lensed by Emmanuel Lubezki, the Oscar-winning DoP whose pirouetting camera untethered us from Gravity, the majority of the action takes place in one seemingly continuous shot. In reality, of course, it’s a series of long, intricate tracking shots, seamlessly stitched together with invisible cuts (think Hitchcock’s Rope, finessed).

The camera’s urged on by a jazzy percussive score as it prowls down corridors, pokes into dressing rooms, scurries up stairwells and, occasionally, bursts onto the theatre’s rooftop for a gulp of quietude. The technique is exhilarating. And, far from showing off, it serves psychological purpose, ensnaring viewers in the dark labyrinth of Riggan’s mind as the walls close in.

At the eye of this technical whirlwind is Keaton. Cast, at least in part, because of his own history as Batman and the subsequent downturn of his career, the 63-year-old actor offers a vanity-free performance of great complexity. Talk of Oscar is deserved, and the comeback that never came after playing for Team Tarantino in Jackie Brown is now assured.

But his, and Riggan’s, aren’t the only resurgences on offer. Norton, hailed the ‘new De Niro’ when he was igniting movies like Primal Fear, American History X and Fight Club, also gamely allows Iñárritu to root through his baggage, here playing a narcissistic Method actor who insists on rewriting scenes, guzzling real gin on stage and lobbying for a sex scene to go beyond simulation (it is, after all, only in front of an audience that he can perform).

That Stone more than holds her own while ricocheting between two such towering turns is testament to her own enormous talent; her character might be back on the wacky baccy but she sees everything clearly, her pointed words pricking the inflated male egos.

No showbiz types are safe in Birdman – actors, directors, agents, publicists, critics – but Iñárritu’s movie flies all the higher for reaching beyond the insular entertainment world. As much as anything else, this is a film about parents and children, and about searching for your place in the world and leaving a legacy. It’s a confined, claustrophobic picture set in a cramped theatre, but its concerns are cosmic.

Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.