It is Oscar-bait season in Ireland, as the studios line up their prestige pictures a short while after they debuted in the places that really matter. One of Fox Searchlights offerings this year, trying to carry on from where their 12 Years A Slave impacted last year, is the enigmatic but altogether loved critical darling Birdman, along with its somewhat dense subtitle: Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance. A stellar looking cast has been lined up behind the particularly chosen Keaton, a man who has re-emerged in the last while after a period of relative obscurity. Is Birdman as good as they say, and is Keaton really enjoying a new renaissance of his career?
Actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a washed up veteran of the blockbuster “Birdman” series, is attempting to write, direct and star in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story on Broadway. Amid trying to deal with his just out of rehab daughter (Emma Stone), a new actor with a gigantic ego (Ed Norton), a fading starlet (Naomi Watts), his stressed lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), his pregnant girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and a bitter theatre critic (Lindsey Duncan), Thomson must also confront the voice of his most famous role in his head, mocking his efforts and driving him towards insanity.
Birdman opens up with a shot of what appears to be a meteorite burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere, before we cut to Michael Keaton’s Riggan, levitating in the air in his dressing room, having an internal debate between himself and the voice of his titular character. This sets up what is to follow quite nicely, a story that at times deviates so far from the main point as to risk labels of being too meandering for its own good, as we swing between doses of hard, cold reality and mind boggling fantasy.
And it is very, very good. There’s a lot going on in Birdman to praise, but it’s with its central journey that is most astonishes. Riggan Thomson is one of the best presented and characterised individuals of this century in film, and it’s largely all done with an inner discussion he’s having with himself, between Riggan (a need for love, to prove himself, to leave a legacy) and Birdman (a need for instant gratification, to feed the ego and to hell with everyone else). This amazingly visualised conflict takes us through fantastical sequence after fantastical sequence, even as the drudgery of Thomson’s play and its problems keeps the entire thing firmly grounded. Thomson is hard pressed, physically and mentally, and Birdman follows him around (literally in many respects) as he gets closer and closer to a breaking point.
He arranges for a traumatic accident to rid himself of a bad actor, acts callously towards his pregnant girlfriend and barely makes any kind of time for his directionless daughter. But even with that, it’s amazing how sympathetic Thomson becomes to the audience. He’s damaged in so many fundamental ways that it’s impossible not to root for him, in at least a small fashion. He’s opposed by so many antagonistic forces, that it becomes easy to see his terrible position as being one of the only points of worth in the narrative. And beyond everything else, Thomson just wants to be loved. The problem is figuring out the best way to do that, in a way that will settle the terrible war that he is fighting with his own psyche. It’s a mid-life crisis being played out on stage, with an uncertain resolution, a thing to be both taken seriously and laughed at.
But it really is the external demons that make it all worthwhile. Norton’s Shiner is every bit the actor that Riggan wishes he was, and it drives him crazy. Laura is a chance for him to have a do-over on his biggest failure, as a parent, but he can’t help but mess that up. His daughter is a constant reminder of how even the time when he was most relevant was a time when he was falling short of his responsibilities. And his ex-wife comes along now and then, to remind him of what he had, what he’s lost, and how tall of a mountain he still has to climb. Riggan is a man who is near rock-bottom, struggling to find self-worth, struggling to leave behind some achievement, to make people view him as he wants them to view him: as a man who can soar past the bounds of this petty Earth, figuratively and literally.
Birdman, with those sequences especially, is fantastical in many respects, though there is always a justification for Thomson’s apparent powers, excusing them as the delusions of a cracking mind. In the end, those demonstrations of often destructive powers come back more to a search for personal freedom, of Thomson seeking an escape: from his own problems, from his need to be loved, from the play, from his life. It manifests itself as vengeful, sometimes suicidal, and sometimes positive behaviour. Dealing with the awful conflict between those two portions of his mind is the only way that Thomson will find that escape, and Birdman is the story of Thomson trying to get to that point, even as the people and places around him suffer the consequences of his lashing out in the process.
Through this central arc, we get two key examinations of the world of story-telling and media. One, is on the dichotomy between art and entertainment, between high brow, genre defining pieces, as Riggan is trying to create, and the more base, action heavy blockbuster stuff that is in his past. Birdman is unapologetically hostile towards the latter, but the former doesn’t get off lightly either: it is a world filled with arrogant, awful people, from the experience-obsessed Shiner to the vitriolic theatre critic who is poised to ruin Riggan’s vision as a matter of course. Some will find the overall judgement harsh, maybe even insulting, for those who have the temerity to enjoy the likes of The Avengers (the director has used the term “cultural genocide” to describe the superhero genre). But the discussion on the idea, on how the modern Hollywood mega-spectacle is defining modern culture in a possibly negative way, is one that is presented brilliantly.
Two, is a visual treatise on the nature of celebrity in the 21st century. Thomson dismisses the world of his daughter, of social media and 24 hour periods of relevance. He wants something a bit more firm when it comes to mass affection, more being stopped by strangers for autographs than having 80’000 “Followers”. But in the midst of his terrible troubles, he comes up close and personal with the modern reality of celebrity, and finds that the experience isn’t the entirely negative thing he previously thought it was, even if it is bound to be as fleeting as he suspects.
In fact, that ties back into the first examination too. Thomson is throwing every bit of his being into his Carver adaptation, and is on the verge of losing everything, including his mind. But after accidently finding himself needing to wonder through New York in just his underwear, he’s suddenly back to getting the adulation he craves. Art versus entertainment, nuanced performance versus the celebrity of humiliation, of shock and gross out. It is a theme that Birdman will stick with, all the way up to its finale (see below).
Away from Thomson and the levitation, Birdman features a slew of sub-plots and arcs, not all of them matching up the Keaton’s towering involvement. Shiner and Thomson’s daughter have a few heart to hearts on the roof, talking about Shiner’s outward persona issues and her lack of care in the world. She also has to try and get on with her Dad, even while largely blaming him for her drug dependency. Naomi Watts’ Lesley has a deteriorating relationship on her hands, and Laura is trying to figure out if she even wants to be a mother. Some of these sub-plots get barely any time at all, and some of them include some rather pointless, and dare-I-say moronic, material. But they are all better viewed as small branches from the central trunk of Thomson’s story, all being birthed from him and his experience, and turning back into him in many ways as Birdman progresses. It’s all part of a very palpable struggle, the kind of struggle that is oh so rare to find in film nowadays.
Birdman is a tour de force on the acting front, complementing its strengths in other areas with the incredible performances of its cast. Keaton is a phenomenon. His casting has obvious connections to his former career as Batman, but he really pulls off an amazing show here, intense, emotional, diverse, with the direction giving him every opportunity to showcase the various moods and changes of the Riggan character. Whether it is in the angry dialogue with the voice in his head, his drunken attack on critics or on stage during the play, Keaton embodies Riggan Thomson completely, showcasing this broken man with something that is truly Oscar-level ability. It is, simply put, the performance of his life.
The supporting cast have varying amounts of time and purpose, but there isn’t a bad showing from any of them. Norton is practically playing himself for large parts, his method actor showcasing some great arrogance and non-caring. Stone is more low-key, but plays off both Keaton and Norton really well, providing a foil to each of them in very different ways. Her mid-point monologue on her father’s lack of fame is brilliantly presented in particular. Watts and Riseborough are really only background accompaniment to the others, but they all have stellar moments where their skill at emoting comes to the fore. Galifianakis might be the most superfluous in plot terms, but he is a bit of a scene stealer with his harried and altogether manic lawyer. And not enough praise can be given to Lindsey Duncan’s briefly appearing theatre critic, pure poison in every word, representing what is mostly a strawman for creators, but one that is bound to engender just the required emotional response. In a film about a play, that could be a play itself really, Birdman has the cast to live up to the complex story being told.
A lot of the greatness of Birdman has to do with the sublime direction and cinematography. No surprise to see Emmanuel Lubezki in the credits. His work on Gravity was stellar enough in 2013, and this is just as good or better, the film presented as an almost continual shot. It’s obviously not, with plenty of subtle breakpoints, but these few days on Broadway come across as a seamless movement of characters and story, the camera following the key players around on their experiences, moving from player to player with ease and tranquillity. It adds to the sense of fun that Birdman almost unwittingly creates, like our eye-piece is a ghost gently wafting through all of these people’s lives.
The general state of close-up on the cast allows those acting talents to come to the fore, aided by the skilful pans and wraparounds, that really make you feel like you are right there in the scene with these people, a fly on the wall to the craziness all around. When Inarritu and Lubezki need to get a bit more crazy they do, with a great sequence mocking the blockbuster-style destruction of cities and another showing Riggan floating around New York (with a poster for Man Of Steel in the background). Birdman really is one of those films where the direction and cinematography go far beyond the necessary competence and become unavoidably noticeable, and praise worthy for it.
The script is so good. It had to be really, for a film about a play, and actors. Every character has that overwhelmingly distinctive voice, every actor gets to have verbal showdowns of the most exquisite variety, whether it is Shiner and Sam’s introspections on the roof, Laura and Leslie’s relationship discussion or the main tent pole of the whole experience, Riggan’s back and forth with the avian demon in his head. “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige” Shiner arrogantly tells Riggan, the perfect summation of his character and the art world he represents. There is a power and purpose in these words, especially the crushing moments when Thomson is vilified by all of those around him, most notably the vicious theatre critic and the gut punch declaration of his daughter on his relevance to the modern world. “You’re not important” Sam tells her father, the three words that could have hurt him the most in that moment.
It continues on in other ways, such as Birdman’s pontification on the ease with which people accept the mundanity of the action-fest, “not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” Or even just the seemingly random inclusion of a homeless man performing excerpts from Macbeth, screaming out the final words on life at one of Riggan’s lowest moments: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!”. You can always tell when a script has been done with care and thought, and Birdman has one of those scripts. It’s also just funny in large doses, even if it is frequently possible to forget that Birdman is supposed to be a comedy. It’s dark, morose stuff for the most part, but it does work.
Musically, it’s a bit of a strange one. Aside from a few strains of simple piano at moments, Birdman’s score is almost entirely about percussion, a frequently revisited drum solo playing over a large amount of scenes, especially transitions. The player even makes it into the film proper, sometimes at fantastical moments. The drum work is good, adding that frantic kind of air to some of the proceedings, but it almost becomes distracting by the time the whole thing is winding down, as you’re left wondering, hopeless of a clear answer, as to whether there was some deeper significance to this auditory choice.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
–Birdman is all about Riggan’s perception of himself, something done visually with the demonstration of his “powers”. But there’s always a reasonable explanation for the things he appears able to do, and it really does seem like an act of subconscious empowerment on his part, to be able to levitate, crush things with his mind, or fly around New York. The Superman poster mentioned above is a very deliberate addition I would think, because it’s what Riggan’s wants to be.
-You’ll read things about Ed Norton as an actor, how he can be difficult to work with and tries to re-write the things that he stars in. You wonder then, just how much of an act he was being asked to put on for Mike Shiner, and if, like Keaton, it was one of the reasons he was cast.
-Though it should be said that while it might be popular to imagine Michael Keaton inhabiting the same kind of space in real life as Thomson does in Birdman, because of Batman and the aftermath, it seems like Keaton retreated from the limelight more of his own volition than anything.
-That Emma Stone monologue deserves some serious praise. It isn’t just the power of the anger in her voice as she lets loose, it’s the way she perfectly captures the instant regret one feels when they finish such a tirade. Her facial expression for that “Dad…” at the end of that moment is better than anything she’s done in dross like The Amazing Spider-Man.
-Yeah, that lesbian kiss was a very odd inclusion. Even now, I’m not sure what to make of it. Was it all in Riggan’s head? Was it a satire on the needless gratuity of blockbuster Hollywood? Or was it just a random insert that made it into the final cut?
–Birdman spends a decent amount of time decrying critics, with Shiner comparing them in informers to his soldier. It’s almost like the director was daring people to criticise his film, exulting in the confidence created by a well made production. As for the critic-bashing itself, the points always wash over me. In the real world, the people who want critics to stop criticising tend to have the most criticism worthy stuff on show.
-I did love the climax of the play’s opening night, as Riggan shoots himself. It would seem clear to me that Thomson was aiming to end his life, having endured all that he can and facing the destruction of his vision. He’s made peace with his daughter (sort of) and his ex-wife, and figures that the only way to beat the machinations of Dickenson is to put on a performance that will make any of her spite meaningless and forgettable. And Birdman follows through on the art/entertainment theme with it too. Even as he lies, possibly dead and bleeding from a head wound on the stage, the audience is only concerned with applauding as loudly as possible. And what did Birdman previously say to Riggan? “People, they love blood”.
-That last scene is obviously going to engender a lot of different interpretations. Thomson has achieved a measure of success in his life: he has fame, critical acclaim from an unlikely source, the love of his daughter, some level of rapprochement from his ex-wife and the possibility of further success down the road. More importantly, he seems to have made peace with himself, and that crucial inner battle, signified by a change of appearance. But then Birdman is still with him, casually using the toilet in his hospital bathroom. I interpreted this as a sign that the ego and the need for instant gratification is never really going to leave Thomson, any more than it ever really leaves any of us. And, in the larger sense, the Hollywood blockbuster style of entertainment, even if it can be as crude as a man in a bird costume using a toilet, is here to stay as well.
-And then there is the last shot. I would say that, in conjunction with the above, Thomson is simply going through another one of his fantasy sequences, and that Sam’s enthralled face looking upwards is part of that, his daughter finally seeing him in the way that he wants to be seen. Maybe Thomson is dead and ascending into his version of heaven, but I find that idea a bit too by the book for a film like this. Thomson will never be free of Birdman or what he represents, but he can make a better world for himself, and he can make a better life with his daughter. He can make her see him how he wants to be seen: as more than just Birdman.
Birdman is a brilliant film. It’s funny, its moving, its visceral and even when it is being random and crazy, it feels, very, very real. The performances of the ensemble are amazing, headed by the immense work of Keaton, staking a serious claim to Oscar glory. The direction is beyond reproach, perfectly accentuating the action on screen. The script is strong, doing everything that it has to so that we see the various shades of things that Birdman wants us to see. And all of that is wrapped around an enjoyable and captivating story, with its main arc and associated sub-plots presenting something marvellous for the audience. It is Oscar-bait season, but that doesn’t mean the offerings on show aren’t any good. Birdman has leaped out ahead early on, and might just already be my film of the year. Heartily recommended.
(All images are copyright of Fox Searchlight Pictures).