Can we stop pretending for one brief second that Michael Keaton totally disappeared from our screens up until Birdman? Whatever you think of them, The Other Guys and Robocop were definitely films. They had cinema releases, editing, posters and everything. And hang on what about Toy Story 3? It might not have been a live action performance but it still counts!
So yeah Keaton’s hardly been conspicuously absent. However there is an undeniably strong sense that with Birdman the actor is able to make a confident and ballsy return. Anyway I’m gonna try and avoid adding more of the same to the rampant Oscar conjecture… But he probably will win. And he probably deserves to. It’s the kind of comeback that the Academy splooge over, but here it crucially feels like more than a desperate cry for accolades, it’s a truly stunning performance.
Keaton plays Rigan Thomas, a washed up movie star, famous for portraying an iconic superhero named “Birdman” in 3 supposedly successful films. But with a fledgling public image, Rigan attempts to reinvent himself as a serious theater director, actor and writer, in order to prove his artistic worth. Staging a new adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, Rigan plunges head first into the world of Broadway, dealing with numerous complications along the way; like his troubled daughter (Emma Stone), an uncontrollable method actor (Edward Norton), critics waiting to tear him a new one if he fails (or indeed, irrespective of if he fails), and his own momentous ego. Add to this the fact that the voice of Birdman constantly mocks and taunts Rigan in his head, and things seem to be insurmountable for the star.
Reflecting the hectic, dreamlike feel of the narrative, the film is played out in what appears to be one take. It’s seamlessly executed and whilst you can hazard a good guess as to where the disguised cuts probably are, I guarantee you that they aren’t visible. So yeah it’s probably a dead cert for an editing Oscar too. With so much of the attention focusing on this aesthetic choice you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s nothing more than a gimmick. It’s a relief to say then, that what could have easily been a case of masturbatory film-making indulgence never becomes a distraction and actually serves the storytelling instead of undermining it. Perfect staging, cinematography and a thoroughly prepared cast and crew ensure that everything feels as smooth and natural as possible.
What’s even more impressive is that every single member of the cast manages to rise to (and in some cases above) Keaton’s impeccable standard. Basically everyone is either “the best they’ve been in years” (Norton) or “The Best they’ve ever been” (A startlingly good Zach Galifianakis). Emma Stone in particular stands out (in a cast full of people standing out), bringing a layered and vulnerable performance to a character who could have been an unlikable, reductive stereotype.
In fact, Birdman’s greatest strength is just how balanced and nuanced it feels at every level. Not one thing feels simplistic or clear cut. This is especially impressive for a film so dense and thematically rich; tackling everything from human existence, celebrity culture, the internet and journalism to the role of blockbuster’s in contemporary society. On that last point in particular, it’s nice to see that the film doesn’t lazily condemn superhero cinema or attack those who do. Instead it provokes thought. It doesn’t forcibly or dogmatically assert answers and whilst it doesn’t insult anyone it doesn’t pull any punches either.
A film this ambitious needs to be in a safe pair of hands, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu is far more than that. “Safe” doesn’t do him justice, his craft is masterful. As is the terrific screenplay, which hits every single note just right, flawlessly switching gears between profound, subversive, moving, and really fucking funny.
Birdman isn’t an experience you’re likely to forget anytime soon, especially with such a bewildering and divisive ending. Deserving of all the recognition it’s getting and not just for its two main talking points (The single take and Keaton) it really reminds you just how powerful the cinematic form can be. I’m going to give this a cautious 10/10 and just pray that the ending eventually settles with me.
Birdman, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu is distributed in the UK by 20th Century Fox. Certificate 15.