The latest work by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” is, despite the uncertainties of its characters, an assured piece of filmmaking. It follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a one-hit wonder celebrity, famous for his portrayal of the super hero Birdman. The aging Riggan seeks to recapture his glory days by directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
There are troubles behind the curtain, both literally and psychologically. As Riggan is forced to deal with an irascible, egotistical co-star (Edward Norton) a seemingly bi-polar lover who may or may not be pregnant (Andrea Riseborough), a defiant daughter unsympathetic towards her father (Emma Stone) and an exasperated lawyer/producer/best friend (Zack Galifinakis), the real battle is between Riggan and his once alter-ego, Birdman. Speaking in a raspy, menacing tone, (surely a jesting reference to Christian Bale’s take on Batman) the specter of Birdman jibes and rattles Riggan, telling him that he’s just a washed up failure, that his attempts at artistry are a crock. He might as well throw in the cowl and make Birdman 4 already.
As Riggan struggles to hold onto reality, the lines between his three lives become increasingly blurred. The reality of Riggan the ordinary man, Riggan the stage actor, and Riggan the superhero all blend into one, and we doubt whether anything we’re seeing is real anymore, or just a manifestation of Riggan’s consciousness in turmoil.
There’s some notable influences guiding Inarritu’s hand. Certainly “Black Swan” comes to mind as we see Riggan’s increasing madness elevating his stage performance. There’s also “Synecdoche, New York,” with Riggan using his play to fend off the looming threat of death. But Birdman is more complex than “Swan” and more digestible than “Synecdoche.” Ianarritu’s cultivation of these influences simply adds layers to a film already bursting with content. Birdman is its own beast.
The film lampoons social media’s role in forming celebrities – one hilarious sequence involves a robe caught in a door, which traps Riggan outside his theater in his underwear, forcing him to walk through Times Square amongst a crowd of gleeful spectators eager to blowup twitter. The film also has something to say about the shallowness of comic book pop corn flicks, particularly in a sequence where Riggan, walking along Broadway, finds his mind suddenly usurped by Birdman’s blockbuster world. Broadway transforms into a big budget movie set, complete with a gigantic robot Griffin breathing fire down Riggan’s back.
But the film’s viewpoints on pop culture play as secondary to its interest in Riggan, as the camera follows him everywhere. During moments of particular absurdity, the camera drifts to the side to reveal bystanders peering at Riggan in bewilderment, before swinging back onto Riggan, who hasn’t noticed them. Riggan experiences the outside world as nothing but a fly buzzing in his ear.
Indeed all of the other characters in the film, and all of the events on stage, could easily be perceived as elements of a fantasy sequence playing out through Riggan’s twisted psychology. Many of the characters are struggling with a deep personal issue that they desperately seek to overcome. Mike’s (Norton) impotence with partner Lesley (Naomi Watts) can only be overcome by the thrill of actually attempting to have sex on stage. Sam (Stone) perceives herself as a perpetual loser, and she can only handle this by acting out against her father, pretending it’s all his fault. Riggan desperately believes that he has something to offer the artistic world, and the only way for him to achieve credibility is to come out from under the shadow of Birdman’s wings. But the mistake these characters make is believing that the only way to escape themselves is to be actors, rather than embracing who they are. The similarities are so notable that the secondary characters may well be mere cogs within Riggan’s solipsistic mechanism.
We are living in Riggan’s world. The cinematography by Emmanuel Zubeski makes phenomenal use of three dimensional space. As Riggan steps out of the theater and onto the brilliantly lit streets of Broadway, the camera rides on his back, then joins him for a drink, seating itself on the bar stool next to him. Like a patient friend waiting for Riggan to finish his last round, the camera remains loyally his. Every physical space that Riggan steps into feels like another floor in the world’s most accurately constructed dollhouse – we know it’s fake, but we feel as though we can live and play in it all the same. This is all thanks to the camera’s refusal to leave his side. Adding to the three dimensionality, the film’s editing takes a cue from Hitchcock’s Rope, and with the exception of a few transitional fades, every cut is hidden with the scene, to sustain the illusion of complete immersion.
This immersion also helps the viewer to accept the film’s constant tonal shifts. The movie is equal parts comedy and tragedy, shifting between the two modes in a stream-of-consciousness flow. Riggan’s world is a place where bi-polar behavior is the established norm. We embrace the tonal shifts as much as we embrace Riggan himself.
Finally, special mention must be made of Michael Keaton. He brings to the role such confidence and believability, and every mood swing the character experiences feels as natural as a shift in the blowing wind. This is Keaton as we’ve never seen him before, stripped naked and ready to take all the punches the world has to throw at him. The result is a revelation of a performance, raw and real. Keaton channels his emotional shifts through the intense psychological hardness that has always been uniquely his. There’s a fire raging behind Keaton’s eyes, a fire we’ve always seen, but never really experienced. The intensity of his stare is something that made his Batman intriguing. But here the Batman mask finally comes off, and Keaton’s fire spreads… consuming the entire theater in the process.
The role of Birdman is clearly associated with Keaton’s Batman, and can be perceived as a device for both character and actor to move forward. Batman, like Birdman, was a defining part of Keaton’s life as an actor, and neither Keaton nor Riggan would be the same without their alter ego. Birdman is largely about coping with a legacy. For character and actor alike, the only way to move past your legacy is to embrace it, and in so doing, redefine it.