One of the most unique, bizarre, beautiful pieces of filmmaking in a long while, 2014’s Best Picture winner Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a movie superhero of fading relevance attempting to stage his Broadway debut as a writer, director and actor.
The film takes its name from Thomson’s former on-screen superhero alter ego, Birdman, a slightly meta nod to Keaton’s own big-screen superhero past.
It would be easy to dismiss Birdman at a glance as another actors-playing-actors nudge-wink-fest, but there’s no blurring of lines, no flirting with reality, and therefore, Birdman never feels forced. It’s simply an examination of cultural relevance, creativity and respect, all through a lens that any modern movie-goer is all too familiar with.
Keaton is appropriately erratic throughout, and from the opening moments we’re sold on just how unstable Riggan is, which sits on a slow burn throughout the movie before finally building to an insane – yet perfectly plausible – climax.
While Keaton is the star, Ed Norton is at once loathsome and effortlessly cool in his role as pretentious theatre star Mike Shiner, a self-absorbed and borderline sociopathic method actor. Emma Stone appears as Sam, Riggan’s daughter/assistant, fresh from rehab and nursing a deep-seated resentment for her deeply troubled father.
While there’s plenty of acting talent on display, much of Birdman‘s charm lies with writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. With the entire movie presented as one incredibly long single shot, Birdman makes for an utterly one-of-a-kind visual experience, something which helps set it apart from its contemporaries.
Under the layers of impressive acting and cinematography, there’s a poignantly sad story about a man desperately fighting to feel relevant. With the constant revisiting of Riggan’s dressing room, in which he silently judges himself (using Birdman’s voice), we feel every ounce of his inner pain as he struggles to see his own worth. There’s also the complicated relationship between Riggan and Mike acting as a more grounded counterpart to these scenes, with Riggan desperately seeking Mike’s approval even while despising him. It’s layered and it’s messy, but it’s done so cleverly that it all makes perfect sense to the audience.
Birdman is a frenzied, beautiful look into the troubled mind of an ageing performer, and it’s both unflinchingly positive and vaguely depressing throughout. It’s a masterclass in storytelling, from the writing, to acting, to presentation.
Summary: Darkly funny, visually mesmerising and at times unsettling, Birdman is a true one-off. Outstanding cinematography frames moving performances from an incredible cast to make for an unforgettable experience.