Birdman is exceptional. It’s funny, dark, modern, and represents a sort of career-defining moment for Michael Keaton, who kind of dropped off the radar at the new millennium. A clever commentary on both the industry and Keaton himself, Birdman is wholly original, and you won’t see anything else like it this year.
Starring Michael Keaton, Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who used to play Birdman in a series of superhero films. Sound familiar? Well, that’s because it’s representing Keaton playing Batman in the 1990s, when he dropped out after the third film. In Birdman, Riggan is attempting to write, direct, and star in his revival Broadway play, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, based on Raymond Carver’s short story. At first it can all be kind of confusing, but it comes together and makes for a deeply felt and humorous tale.
Riggan is internally conflicted by his two thoughts: his present thoughts and his Birdman-era thoughts. Birdman constantly torments him, and here we see the effects that Hollywood can have on certain individuals. Riggan is susceptible to fits of rage, media scrutiny, and all he wants to do is create a hit play. Getting in his way is a variety of characters who each have their own unique temperaments. Mike Shiner, played by the wonderful Edward Norton, is Riggan’s first choice for the lead role in his play. Initially, the two get along, with their playful banter and fun Hollywood chatter. But soon things spiral out of control and Shiner outshines Riggan and his ego gets the best of him. This culminates in an outstanding scene with Riggan walking naked through Times Square.
It’s all a very personal film, one that taps into Riggan’s inner demons. Here’s a character injured by his selfishness and those around him, one who is both deeply sympathetic and loathsome at the same time. You meet his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and his daughter and assistant Sam (Emma Stone), both who turn in excellent performances, especially Sam. The familial interactions are both cold and harrowing, but have an aura of patriarchal love as Riggan tries to reconnect with Sam, who is fresh out of rehab.
All of this comes together through phenomenal camera work from Emmanuel Lubezki, hot off his win from last year’s Gravity. The film is shot in only a few number of takes, with excellent tracking shots and great angles that actually mean something. Birdman is a great example of how the cinematography can elevate a good film into a great one. Scenes with Riggan’s inner demons battling within use great use of narration and score. Antonio Sanchez delivers a Broadway-esque score with blaring horns and light percussion, one that I hope gets awards recognition down the line.
In fact, the whole film deserves awards recognition. Keaton is amazing and gives his best performance ever here. Emma Stone and Edward Norton are also scene-stealers. Many scenes in Birdman I think will be all-timers, from Shiner and Riggan’s fist fight to Riggan’s flight through New York City. It’s a testament to Innaritu’s great direction that I think Birdman will stand the test of time. It’s one of the year’s best, and a great revival for an all-time great actor.