Review: Birdman

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Stepping away from the gloominess of his back catalogue, Iñárritu's Birdman is a breath of fresh air. A complex, thoughtful and satirical dark comedy, the film is almost flawless, with Keaton providing one of the best comeback performances in recent memory.

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The blockbusting superhero movies that have launched many an actor into celebrity stardom continue to grow rapidly in popularity, a number of them grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. Whether this genre of film can be classified as ‘art’ is a matter of opinion, but for washed-up superhero actor Riggan Thomson, penning and starring in a Broadway play is his last chance to be remembered for something truly great, before he fades away into irrelevance. In Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), we see Thomson, played impeccably by Michael Keaton, battle his own ego, as he tries to break away from his ‘Birdman’ persona, and accomplish something that will be held in high regard.

What director Alejandro González Iñárritu presents with Birdman is a visually exhilarating and technically brilliant exploration into the psyche of a man who is as delusional as he is desperate; an exploration that is executed with such grace and style that it is unlikely to be replicated anytime soon. In 2014, we were blessed with the masterwork seven minute long-shot sequence in television series True Detective. This year, Birdman manages to put that to shame. Iñárritu uses cinematic trickery to conjure together a narrative that seems as if it is all filmed in one continuous shot, when in reality the story takes place over a number of weeks.

Given the fact that Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is on board, the complexity of the camera work is hardly surprising, but also completely unprecedented. What is most remarkable, is that the grand ideas in the technical aspects of the filmmaking never detract from what is really at hand here; a harsh character study into a broken man and those that he has surrounded himself with. When handled by a lesser team of filmmakers, this long shot technique could easily deteriorate into a glorified gimmick, but Iñárritu cleverly utilises it as a tool to help piece together his intimate, and thematically intriguing puzzle.

At first glance, this could all be considered to simply be a critique of the entertainment industry in general; both big time Hollywood stars and artsy theatre critics are given their comeuppance. But at the heart of Birdman is the darkly amusing, yet profoundly sad, story of Riggan Thomson, a man who is using the last of his money for a last-ditch attempt to be admired, proving that the movie could be considered as a critique of the human ego more than anything else. Keaton knocks it out of the park here, giving undoubtedly one of the best performances of his career, and what will surely be remembered as one of the best comebacks in cinema. Showcasing the tragic mindset of Riggan, who dangerously rides the line between sanity and insanity, Keaton never fails to engage the audience. One moment Riggan will be with family or co-workers, barely keeping himself together, and the next he will be alone having completely lost it, imagining he has superpowers, accompanied by the voice of his alter-ego ‘Birdman’.

It’s not just Keaton’s acting talent that Iñárritu focuses his eye on; the camera often shies away from Riggan, slinking off to find another character to linger over. Zach Galifianakisis featured, taking a break from the zany roles that he is most famous for, giving more of an understated – yet very strong – comedic performance as Riggan’s best friend and lawyer Jake. Rounding out the cast, we have Emma Stone and Edward Norton, who are tremendous in their respective roles. Sam (Stone) is Riggan’s troubled daughter with a history of substance abuse, who seems as if her insecurities may boil to the surface at any given moment – not too dissimilar to her father. While Sam chastises her father for having no presence or social media or any idea of how to become popular, Norton offers an even more explosive turn as method actor Mike Shiner, berating Riggan for the exact opposite reason; “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” If there are any minor problems with Birdman, it’s that some of these supporting characters don’t get the closure that they deserve, but if anything this only hammers home the fact that it is very much Riggan Thomson’s story, those around him simply being fleeting passers-by in his life.

The film has unsurprisingly generated quite an amount of Oscar buzz – especially for Keaton – although one of the most award-worthy aspects of the film has unjustly been disqualified: the score. Antonio Sánchez provides a fantastically jazzy undercurrent to Birdman, his non-stop drums acting as the beating heart of the movie, matching the mood of each scene perfectly, ensuring the story runs smoothly. It’s a wonder that the narrative flows as well as it does; Iñárritu shares a writing credit with three others, meaning that the script could easily have fallen victim to too much forethought and conflicting ideas. Instead, Birdman is a layered, unique piece of cinema, which despite the dark content has a certain lightness about it that is wholly refreshing.

Birdman (2015), directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, is released in UK cinemas by Fox Searchlight Pictures, Certificate 15. 

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