If you’re looking for a movie that’ll have you walking out of the theater wondering what exactly you just saw, Birdman is your movie. And I mean that in an entirely positive way. It is intelligent, interesting, well-crafted and extremely well-acted. It is far from mainstream, very philosophical, and lends itself to the audience walking away analyzing every little aspect. Does it deserve all of the Academy Award nominations it received? I’m more than okay with them.
On the surface, it’s about an aging actor Riggan (Michael Keaton) who is best known for and feels haunted by his role as superhero Birdman twenty years prior. Struggling to pull himself out of the shadow of his previous role, he has decided to write, direct and star in a play adaptation on Broadway. The film follows him and the play through several previews, after with opening night. Along the way, we meet Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), the manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and the stars of the play: Mike (Edward Norton), Lesley (Naomi Watts), and Laura (Andrea Riseborough). It’s an uphill battle with Jake as the man trying to keep everything afloat while Riggan fights his inner demons and Mike acts as the resident Broadway diva.
Visually, it is a compelling film. The entire movie flows seamlessly from one scene to the next, giving the impression it is all done in one long shot. Somehow this seems to give it a theatrical feel – an interesting choice in a movie about the theater and acting. It is also shot with what resembles a fish-eye lens, giving all of the characters an almost cartoonish look at times, heightening the feeling that we are watching a comic book come to life and blurring the lines between reality and entertainment. It is obvious that both the director and cinematographer spent time and attention towards using the look of the movie to further the plot and overall message.
And then there is the acting. Keaton is absolutely compelling as Riggan, floating between moments that create sympathy to others that are absurd and comedic. His journey through the film is fascinating as he fights with himself, doubting his ability to successfully bring his play to the stage. As the film progresses, I was thrown back and forth between the belief that he has gone crazy and seeing his moments with Birdman as a metaphorical inner struggle. Even at the end of the movie, I am not certain of what is real and what is not with those scenes and that is part of what fascinates me the most. It forces the audience to think and analyze what they see throughout the entire film. That is also what makes me want to go back and see it again.
It had been a while since I last saw Norton in a quality movie and that is part of what appealed to me about Birdman. I know Norton is capable of excellent work when given the right material, so this was an exciting opportunity to see just that. And he does not disappoint. As an established (and expensive) Broadway star, Mike is brought in the replace the former leading actor in Riggan’s play. Mike is a method actor and therefore a little bit of a diva; for example, he decides that his character should be a redneck and orders a tanning bed to be delivered to the theater for him to use. At the same time, while he shows no fear as another person on stage, he is crippled by fear in his real life. He seems to not care what others think of him, but at the same time distances himself from people to avoid embarrassment and getting hurt. He hasn’t had sex in months because he can’t get it up and will not make a move on a woman he finds attractive because of that; however, when in a scene on stage where they are meant to be having sex, he is suddenly both able to and enthusiastic about performing for real. While it is an absurd character, I can’t help but feel a degree of sympathy for him despite obvious flaws. He is so good at playing others on stage, yet cannot relate to people in reality.
The third standout character to me was Riggan’s daughter Sam. Having known for a while that Stone can really act and waiting for the right role to come around to adequately display her abilities, this was almost as exciting for me as having Norton in the film. She plays Sam, who has just come out of rehab and hangs around the theater acting as a sort of assistant to her father. When we see her, she is either sitting up on a ledge on the roof looking at the street below or making little ticks on a roll of toilet paper with a marker. She is a bit of an eccentric character (but who isn’t in this movie) but also serves as someone who can attempt to bring both Riggan and Mike back down to earth. With Mike, she encourages him to live as himself, outside of the characters he plays. And with Riggan, she grounds him in part by standing by him as his daughter, and partly with what she learned in rehab. The ticks she has been making on toilet paper throughout the movie are revealed to be an activity from rehab in which each tick marks one thousand years and one square comprises the amount of time humans have been in existence, versus the rest of the roll which represents all of the time during Earth’s existence without humans. It is meant to make individual problems seem small compared to the grand scheme of things.
As for Birdman himself, I have plenty of theories about what he is meant to represent. Maybe I’ll get back to you about that once I’ve had a chance to see it again, and I’d love to hear what you think. It is a movie meant to be discussed, with its ideas about actors and the business, critics and the media, life and living.