Ids, egos and superegos collide and combust (in a single take!) on stages as concrete as the Broadway theatre and as fantastical as the imaginings of a self-obsessed actor in Alejandro González Iňárritu's Birdman. As in the myth of Icarus, to which his wily script often alludes both visually and verbally, Iňárritu has high-flying ambitions for what is possibly his most personal film to date. But rather than crash and burn, his satiric slant on the artist's odyssey soars magnificently on its dark feathery wings.
Michael Keaton stars – in a performance that vies to redefine his career – as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up former movie star seeking respect and validation by directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway. He had once played a popular superhero (the eponymous Birdman) in a series of lucrative but disposable comic book blockbusters that brought him fame and fortune, but not artistic fulfillment.
Now, some twenty years after hanging up his dopey bird suit, he's risking so much more than just his money and reputation by mounting this prestigious production. The tenuous relationship with his recovering drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), his fragile sense of self, and even his grasp on reality hang in the balance while the pressure mounts.
Iňárritu has taken some bold artistic risks himself with Birdman; Much ado has been made about his splashy, “unedited” single-take approach. There actually are several digital editing cuts so expertly achieved that they're invisible to us. Otherwise, the film is designed to resemble one extended single take, shot by the modern master of lengthy tracking shots, Emmanuel Lubezki.
The trick itself isn't an original one; Alfred Hitchcock famously attempted it with Rope, as did Alexander Sokurov more recently with Russian Ark. But Lubezki's magic with light, colour and kineticism elevates this camera stunt above the gimmick into which it could have deteriorated. Beyond its visual panache, the greatest virtue of this uninterrupted shooting style is the chance it affords us to observe the cast's uninterrupted performances. Seems appropriate for a story about live theatre, no?
But the thing about live theatre is that there's a lot that can, and does, go wrong. As the days left until opening night are counted down by a gong show of disastrous rehearsals and previews, Riggan finds himself at odds with his actors, his family, his audience, but most of all himself. One minute he's humbly self-aware, the next he's the sort of egomaniac who'd shoot his nose to spite his face.
The show within a show we see him preparing reflects more and more this struggle between his doggedly driven superego and his hallucinatory id, the victor of which may decide the fate of his very existence. One of the masterstrokes of Iňárritu's devilishly funny screenplay (which he co-wrote with Nicolas Giácobone, Alexander Dinelaris & Armando Bo) is how it populates Riggan's world with characters who represent the conflicting levels of his psyche.
All the self-conscious perceptions he has about his family, his career, and his art are reflected in the interactions he shares with his concerned ex-wife (Amy Ryan), his harried best friend/agent (Zack Galifianakis), and the New York Times' hostile theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan). His raging subconscious delusions, meanwhile, are embodied by his prickly method actor costar (an hilarious Edward Norton), his leading lady/lover (Andrea Riseborough), and the ghost of Birdman himself, who taunts Riggan with barbed reminders of his lost stardom.
It's only fitting that a piece of art that's about about art imitating life would imitate life itself. So cinephiles can be forgiven for gleefully reminding those of us who've forgotten, that Keaton – much like the character he plays here – hit the apex of his own big screen career (until now, that is) over twenty years ago by playing the iconic title superhero in Tim Burton's Batman movies.
While it's impossible to measure the extent to which Keaton's own history and perspectives inform his performance, what's undeniable is that he's tapped into something truly special with his work here. Ever the versatile performer, he plays Riggan as a grounded human being and as an artist driven mad with equal conviction, building to a climatic epiphany that's as terrifying as it is bleakly comical.
Yet as tempting as it is to play up the “meta” aspect of Keaton as Riggan, the truth is it's probably more accurate to read Iňárritu as Riggan. He is the artist who has put himself out there on the line and delivered a near masterpiece. Sure, Birdman's not perfect (a few too many unresolved subplots clamber for our attention), but Iňárritu flies just close enough to the sun for us to see the world from Riggan Thompson's eyes... without falling back down in flames.
**** out of ****