Birdman is one of those films that are difficult to describe or categorize. It’s nominally a “black comedy,” but it was tragic enough that a fellow moviegoer leaving my theater felt the need to tell the ticket-taker that it was depressing and reminded him of Robin Williams. It is also hilarious. It’s an ensemble piece, yet it’s entirely dominated by one actor in the comeback role of a lifetime, despite the fact that he’s never been gone. It’s a straightforward story of backstage theater drama and shenanigans, but it’s also a meditation on life, fame, popularity, art, and how we define ourselves and let others define us. It’s a simple film, set in one small corner of New York with only a handful of characters, while simultaneously being one of the most exhilarating works of cinematic craftsmanship I’ve seen in years. More than anything, it’s the sort of film that sticks in your head, refusing to be easily dismissed or forgotten.
Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), an aging actor most famous for playing Birdman, a superhero, in a series of hit movies decades ago. He is in the process of crafting a drama on Broadway based on a Raymond Carver short story, which Riggan adapted for the stage, is directing, and in which he stars. He’s invested all of his money in the show, while simultaneously trying to redeem himself as a father to his estranged, recovering addict of a daughter and juggle things with his girlfriend/costar. During a rehearsal, a light falls from the rafters and kills one of the four actors in the show, forcing Riggan to bring on a hotshot younger stage star who happens to be the boyfriend of another actress on the show (Edward Norton) with whom Riggan immediately clashes. Things start to unravel quickly, as rehearsals go from bad to worse, personalities come into conflict, and all of Riggan’s dreams and aspirations start to go up in smoke.
That, however, is just the surface of the film’s story. Riggan is haunted, quite literally, by his legacy as Birdman. He wants to be thought of as a serious actor, hence the stage production, yet throughout the film he hears Birdman’s growling voice in his head, sometimes taking him to task for trying to repress that aspect of his life and other times egging him on in an attempt to bring out the vigilante. Birdman’s presence even manifests itself as telekinetic powers belonging to Riggan, but the question is whether he can really make things zoom around his dressing room with his mind or whether he’s mentally unraveling and imagining it all. Throughout the film, Riggan’s struggles mesh with their rehearsals and performances of the play, and the lines between life and stage start to blur. Riggan starts to become more unhinged as the Birdman starts to break through, and as Riggan starts to question everything about his life we start to question whether he can even survive opening night.
The entirety of Birdman hangs on Michael Keaton. The parallel between Birdman and Keaton’s role in the Batman movies is obvious, although there’s actually very little in common between the character of Riggan and Keaton himself. Still, Keaton brings a manic energy to the role that will be very familiar to his Batman (or Beetlejuice) fans, giving us an intense look at Riggan as he starts to break down. Yet there’s a real depth of humanity inside Riggan, too, particularly as we watch him try to patch things up with his daughter or as he tries to sort out his place in the world. There’s a unique mixture in his performance of weariness and electricity, and it’s simply riveting to watch. Edward Norton has a lot of fun as the showboating younger star who drinks on stage, blows off rehearsals, and seemingly has the theater world wrapped around his little finger. Emma Stone also shines as Riggan’s broken daughter, who has an acid tongue yet is fragile and delicate all the same. The rest of the cast is equally stellar, including Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis.
As written and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman appears to be comprised of one single shot. It’s a brilliant combination of skillful writing, directing, and editing that makes the film feel like we’re living inside Riggan’s head as things transpire in real time, despite the film taking place over the course of several days. It’s a risky, complicated technique that allows us to watch as events unfold yet also allowing us insight into Riggan’s mind, watching as his powers/delusions grow and listening in as Birdman exerts his influence, swooping through imagined action scenarios or tightly focused as Riggan navigates the realities of his life. It’s pretty dark stuff, seeing Riggan unravel before our eyes, yet the film is nevertheless a comedy, with enough hilarious moments to justify that classification. Whether it’s the cluelessness of Norton’s character’s showboating or the sequence where Keaton finds himself locked outside the theater in his underwear, having to make his way down Broadway to the theater’s front entrance, the film rarely lets up on the laughs. All the while, the whole film is accompanied by a stark, jazzy, improvised score by drummer Antonio Sanchez, which helps to underscore the comedy beats while adding a level of nervous tension to the proceedings.
Generally, Birdman is the story of Riggan trying to figure out his legacy. Nearing the latter stages of his acting career, he wants to show the world that he’s more than just a man inside a rubber suit, hoping that his artistic expression in his play will earn him some respect at last. On the other hand, he knows that Birdman has brought him more fame than most, and he struggles trying to balance the seemingly conflicting ideas of popularity and prestige. At the same time, he knows that everyone else knows that his latest endeavor is an attempt to grab something which he feels eludes him, rather than a serious exploration of the art of the stage, and therefore is it any different than donning a mask and a cape for attention? And in the end, does he even have any say over his legacy at all? These are the sorts of questions that Birdman raises, but rather than try to answer them it lets us watch as Riggan tries to answer them for himself, leaving us not with a solution but with one man’s attempt to find one. It’s the sort of story that could only be told on film, and only be told in this way with this cast and crew. Any changes would result in something entirely different, and something not nearly as fascinating and impressive. And while award season may cement Birdman’s legacy, it is first and foremost a film worth seeing in its own right, unique and creative, sometimes messy and always entertaining.