By Brad Shea
Washed up movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) attempts to rejuvenate his career by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play. As tensions rise between Thomson, his daughter (Emma Stone) and his fellow actors (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts), the once great Birdman actor must decide if success is worth the price.
Michael Keaton never really left us. Since his roles as Beetlejuice and Batman in Tim Burton’s films of the same name, his star in Hollywood may have dropped but he has remained present throughout the years. It is a career which shares much in common with the character he plays in Birdman, Riggan Thomson, the star of the hugely popular Birdman film series who himself has since fell into obscurity. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) has insisted that Keaton’s casting was not deliberate but it is extremely hard not to draw a connection between the character and the films star and in all honesty, it is a connection that improves the viewing experience.
Keaton plays Thomson as a man possessed by his yearning for fame and relevancy in a world that has forgotten him. Haunted by the voice of his mot famous role, Birdman, Thomson strives to make his stage production a success yet with the odds against him, it’s no easy feat. Watching Thomson struggle to ensure everything run smoothly is difficult as it is hard not to like him despite his shortcomings. These shortcomings are mostly due to his ignorance to what is happening around him, particularly with his daughter, played brilliantly by Emma Stone, a recovering drug addict. As the film progresses, however, Thomson is able to grow and realise that success is not measured in reviews or salaries but instead in what one does with their life. It’s a growth that feels natural thanks to Keaton’s sincere performance which will surely see him nominated for an Oscar come February.
Despite the great performance from Keaton, however, this is not a one man show. The supporting cast, which includes Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts, all deliver over the course of the films 2 hour run time. Norton in particular is brilliant as Mike Shiner, a talented Broadway actor with a reputation for being ‘difficult’, who’s ego sabotages previews of the play and angers Thomson. It is the tension between the two that provides some of the films funniest moments, and there are many, and also comments on the differences between classically trained actors and those that star in blockbuster films. There’s talk that Norton’s character, like Keaton’s, is loosely based upon the actor himself and if so, it’s easy to see why he was dropped from his contract by Marvel years ago. Regardless, it’s a performance that could earn the actor a Best Supporting Actor nominee at the Oscars.
Though the performances are fantastic all round, the direction of the film itself must be highly praised. Edited as one long cut, it evokes the imagery of a stage play as we follow the actors backstage at the theatre. This editing technique is one that ensures the audience remain fully engaged throughout the film as each scene bleeds seamlessly into the next with no cuts to distract from the experience. It’s fluid cinema done beautifully and praise must be heaped upon both the director and the films editor for this. It’s not just the editing style which is done perfectly but also the music, minimal, and the dialogue, sharp and witty, are executed spectacularly. The film deserves to clean up at awards season in several different categories and is already being predicted to by critics around the world.
Perhaps the one criticism that can be had of Birdman is that the ending is extremely ambiguous and may confuse viewers. Being wary of spoilers, I myself was perplexed by the final shot but have drawn my own conclusions on it after careful deliberation. Many may not share this confusion with me and many may reach different interpretations but that only adds to the charm of the film itself. Sometimes cinema is at it’s best when not everything is spelled out for us.
We may still be in the early stages of 2015 but I find it extremely hard to imagine a film being released this year which could entertain and engage an audience as thoroughly as Birdman. Comparisons to The Wrestler and Black Swan have been drawn up but Birdman is unlike anything that I have seen before. Prepare to be fully immersed for the duration and come out craving a second viewing, it really is sensational.
Bradley Shea is a third year student studying English & Creative Writing. Find him on twitter @bradleyyyshea