When going into 2015, this is one of the films that I have been waiting for with baited breath. After a couple of missed opportunities at press and surprise screenings, the new film by 21 Grams and Amores Perros director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Yet it reminds me of a Queen song…blame New Year’s celebrations.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) follows ageing actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who is famously known for his role as Birdman, an iconic superhero. More than 20 years after leaving the Birdman film franchise, Thomson decides to adapt, direct and star in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. In the few days before its opening night, he has to contend with his actors, family and most of all, himself.
So, the Queen reference? To quote Bohemian Rhapsody: ‘Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality’. As ridiculous as it may sound, it is easily applicable here. It is debatable on whether certain scenes in Birdman are fantastical, a means for Riggan to escape his troubles or they represent his true calling but at the end of the day, they are not the most memorable scenes in the film. Instead, it is the comparably mundane interactions that make the biggest impression, highlighting the normality in chaos.
It is hard to pick holes in something that features a very different and original narrative and filmmaking approach. From his previous films such as Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros, film fans know that Iñárritu has a sense of style when telling a story. However, he has exceeded himself in Birdman and thanks to director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, the long tracking shots are seamless and complement the continuous narrative, which not only accommodates the ensemble cast but also the mannerisms of their characters. Together, the shots form a piece that is visually similar to watching a play, effectively raising the bar on how certain characters and interactions are perceived on-screen.
Actors moving from stage to screen and back again is a career change that is considered normal nowadays, so the reason why the classic mid-life crisis of an ageing actor strikes a chord here shows its effectiveness as a story. With Riggan wanting to move out of the shadow of Birdman yet he seems unable to suppress the urge to fuck everyone and go back to the money and fame echoes an all-too familiar conflict, but the hallucinations of him being Birdman and showcasing superhero abilities show that this struggle is much more than fame, recognition or talent.
Keaton is perfect in the role as Riggan as his character’s struggles are almost parallel to his own career. Both have played an iconic superhero but left a successful franchise, only for them to make a comeback several years later when there are younger, ‘hotter’ talent in contention. His performance as the conflicted Riggan is dry and quick-witted, proving that he can still pull off the same wickedness and spontaneity from his performance in the 1988 film Beetlejuice.
The supporting cast are great too. Even though they represent certain clichés, ranging from the Broadway debutant (Naomi Watts), the troubled daughter (Emma Stone) and the diva (Edward Norton), they bring enough complexities to the story, as well as add another dimension to the already multi-layered Riggan.
Birdman is essentially a simple story that is made extraordinary by its direction, cast and concept. And for those who don’t think cinema is as credible as theatre, this waves two fingers in their face, not to mention shitloads of award nominations.
Thanks for reading.