Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero. He must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.
How do you review a film like Birdman? It’s virtually impossible to truly describe it and do it justice using only words on a page or a screen. I did consider writing this review in one continuous sentence or paragraph as a nod to the film’s camera work, but decided it would just make reading my stuff even more painful than usual!
So where do we start? Let’s go for Birdman himself, Michael Keaton. Getting Keaton to play the role in the first place is a stroke of genius considering his role as Batman in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Like Riggan, Keaton has never been as popular since playing a superhero and you could argue that Birdman is Keaton’s version of the play Riggan is attempting to direct.
Keaton is fantastic as Riggan, constantly walking the lines between creative genius, enthusiastic try-hard and mental breakdown, all three personalities vying for centre stage. Due to the semi-autobiographical nature of the film, it does feel as if we’re seeing a window into Keaton’s own mindset and, as such, it feels like a very personal performance. A scene in which Riggan lays into a Broadway critic feels very much like he’s finally spewing forth an opinion he, and countless other actors, have been waiting a lifetime to express.
Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter and Edward Norton as an arrogant Broadway star also put in excellent performances, both of whom also seem less than mentally stable themselves.
Birdman’s cinematography is in the hands of Emmanuel Lubezki, who did such sterling work on Gravity, and here, along with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s direction, he’s created something quite breathtaking. Birdman is shot as if it’s one, continuous sweeping camera shot, swooping gracefully from one scene to the next and occasionally using timelapse to advance the narrative, all set in and around Broadway’s St. James Theatre.
Like Hitchcock’s Rope, edits are hidden very cleverly, although on first viewing the whole thing may be a little distracting as you could be forgiven for focusing more on the camera technique than anything else. It is, however, nothing short of a technical and creative marvel and should be applauded for helping to make Birdman something rather unique.
There’s a fair bit going on under Birdman’s hood, which is why a written review barely scratches the surface. It’s about fame, popularity, social media, mental health, the film industry and a million other things. It’s one of those films in which you get out what you put into it; there are metaphors and subtexts at every turn and you’re never really sure whether what you’re seeing is literal or metaphorical. For example, does Riggan really have the telekinetic powers he exhibits when no-one else is around or are they figments of his imagination? It’s a film that lets you make those kind of decisions for yourself.
You could even go as far to say that there’s actually a little too much going on. With the aforementioned camera work, the erratic drum soundtrack and myriad of ideas and themes criss-crossing here, there and everywhere, it can be a little difficult to take it all in, at least on first viewing. It’s all good stuff that’s being thrown at you but with so much of it, only some of it can actually grab your attention at any one time.
Birdman is one of those films that almost demands a second viewing (and perhaps a third and a fourth) but it’s such a whirlwind of an experience there’s every chance you’ll watch a different film each time. It’s difficult to say Birdman will appeal to everyone as it most likely won’t, but if you want a film that’s innovative, thought-provoking and unique then it’s an absolute must-watch.
- Breathtaking camera work
- Great performance from Michael Keaton and surrounding cast
- Gives you plenty to think about
- Sometimes a little too much going on for its own good