It’s been nearly a month since I saw this film, but I’m still thinking about it. In fact, I was just telling a friend over coffee this weekend how the more I think about this film, the more I like it.
The story revolves around Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton in an art-imitating-life sort of a role as he’s famous for playing Batman in the late 80s/early 90s. Riggan is a has-been actor, most famous for playing a successful comic-book franchise, Birdman. But instead of opting to take an easy paycheck out of the fourth installment of the franchise, Riggan attempts to reinvent himself and reclaim his past glory by directing/starring an off-Broadway play. Not a light undertaking, especially when one problem after another starts popping up, threatening to grind his play to a halt. It also doesn’t help that Riggan is still haunted by his Birdman character, literally, who constantly berates him in his dressing room.
The way Alejandro González Iñárritu frames his story is captivating and unequivocally surreal. The camera is told from Riggan’s point of view and the camera often follows him in one long, continuous take. From the cramped dressing room through the narrow corridor all the way to the stage, the film takes place mostly in the confines of the theater’s backstage. The neon sign of Phantom of the Opera is often visible in NYC’s Theater District across Riggan’s theater, one of the things that grounds the film in reality amidst all the surreal elements. Slipping back and forth between reality and fantasy, and often blurs the line between the two, the film manages to keep me entertained and engaged throughout.
It certainly helps that all his actors perform with equal dexterity. Nice to see Edward Norton get a role worthy of his talent. He’s a method actor who’s a bit of a diva and his on-and-off screen antics are fun to watch. There’s an amusing brawl backstage between him and Keaton that’s worth the price of admission. Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Emma Stone all provide memorable supporting role, with Stone perhaps having the flashiest part as Riggan’s daughter. Her performance, especially memorable for her heated monologue, has already earned her a Golden Globe and SAG nomination. Even Zach Galifinakis, an actor I never quite warmed up to, was quite good here as his often-hysterical theater producer. British actress Lindsay Duncan has a small but important role as the critic who could potentially make or break Riggan’s career.
The real star here is Michael Keaton in a welcomed come-back role as a leading man. I’ve always been a fan of the underrated actor as he can deliver both serious, menacing and comical performance convincingly. He gets to do both here in equal measure as he truly embodies his character. He’s a natural in the more um, batty scenarios, but also genuinely sympathetic in the quieter moments that display Riggan’s vulnerability. Perhaps the fact that he has a similar personal experience helps him in the role, so it’s definitely inspired casting here that works wonderfully for the film.
This is Iñárritu’s third film that I have seen so far. It could very well be my favorite and one I don’t mind seeing again. He strikes a perfect balance between drama and humor, at times hilarious and off the wall, and others heart-rending and poignant. The film’s a not-so-subtle mockery of Hollywood’s preoccupation with superhero franchises – and some of the real-life actors who’ve been in them– but yet it’s not done with disdain nor contempt as it’s all part of Riggan’s personal story. The movie also provides an interesting commentary on social media and how that affects celebrity culture in this day and age.
On a technical level, Birdman is simply phenomenal. The stunning and unique camera work make you think ‘how did they do that?’ without being too distracting. The percussion music isn’t really my style but it works in the context of the film. Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar for his astounding cinematography work for Gravity, will likely get another nom for this. I read somewhere that he shot this without artificial light due to space constraints of the cramped theater.
I have to admit I still don’t know what to make of that WTF finale that seems deliberately left open for interpretation. It certainly makes for a fun discussion afterwards and it’s been fun reading all kinds of theories about it. I won’t say another word on it as it’s best that you discover that for yourself. Despite all the bizarre scenes and all its dream-like eccentricities, the film somehow still feels personal and human, even relatable in a strange way. No surprise that Birdman‘s become the critical darling of the year and has been raking a bunch of nominations left and right. I for one think the accolade is well-deserved as Iñárritu pushes the creative boundaries of story-telling to a new level.
Have you seen Birdman? Well, what did YOU think?