The opening scene of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) begins with a shot of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson sat cross-legged at his dressing room window, in his pants. Oh, and he’s levitating. Similarly, the film itself has risen up through the swirling frenzy of awards season, lavished with unanimous critical praise and widely whispered as the movie to see this year. Similarly, it’s also quite mad.
Riggan is a Hollywood actor well past his prime, made world-famous by his portrayal of the eponymous Birdman in a well-loved but decades-old superhero franchise (sound familiar?) and now staging a last-ditch attempt to take a more meaningful direction in his career with a theatrical adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. As opening night approaches, he is beset with mounting problems: difficult actors, financial worries and cynicism from the press all threaten to derail the entire enterprise. The plot may not sound wildly innovative, but Birdman is absolutely anything but ordinary. Shot and edited to appear like a single continuous take, we are marched around Riggan’s barely stable life, set to a restless score of jazz percussion (and the gravelly disembodied voice of ‘Birdman’ taunting him inside his own head).
The casting of Keaton is nothing short of genius; yes, he is indeed ‘one of the few guys who have truly worn that cape’, says Iñárritu, but his performance is genuinely remarkable even without factoring in the other B-word. Sometimes angry, sometimes exasperated, sometimes manic, he is always wearily driven, charging head-on into what may end up a resounding success or a full-on mental breakdown. We see every hairline crack in Riggan’s face when he frowns, and in every frown the dissatisfaction that has sunk its talons deeper and deeper with every passing year of fame for a role he now despises.
In fact, the entire cast barely puts a foot wrong. Mike Shiner (played brilliantly volatile by Edward Norton) is the toast of Broadway, procured for a hefty sum to revitalise the show but with a habit of taking method acting a little too far. Zach Galifianakis is scene-stealing as Riggan’s lawyer Jake, proving he is even funnier when not playing the fool, and the always compelling Emma Stone is endlessly watchable as the caustic, wide-eyed Sam, Riggan’s daughter and assistant. Lindsay Duncan excels in a very brief but excellently acerbic performance as the powerful New York Times theatre critic, and her eventual clash with Riggan is one of the film’s most intense scenes (and one that presumably left other critics squirming in their seats too). The only character who feels slightly off-kilter is Riggan’s girlfriend Laura, whose presence – though Andrea Riseborough is always electric on-screen – feels a little superfluous.
But such a small flaw falls by the wayside in an otherwise marvellously impressive film. If Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity was last year’s pinnacle of technical achievement in cinema, Birdman is undoubtedly a contender for this year’s accolade. Emmanuel Lubezki was at the cinematographic helm of both films, but while Gravity concerned itself with the vast depths of the cosmos, Birdman’s genius is in navigating the claustrophobic spaces of the Broadway theatre, up and down staircases, in and out of dressing rooms, across the stage, and soaring out onto the New York streets outside with seamless ease. The single-shot aspect is so much more than the gimmick it sounds like – the rapid pace of the film never relents, and the effect is disorienting but in a wonderfully entertaining way.
We’re never quite sure of where we will be taken next, never certain what a character might do, or where the conversation may swerve. This surreal unpredictability Iñárritu has cultivated elevates interactions that may have been more pedestrian in the hands of a less skilled director (‘why did we break up?’ Riggan asks his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), for instance. ‘Because you threw a kitchen knife at me’ she replies). This comes to a head in the film’s maddeningly tense climax (and one of the greatest scenes I have seen on screen in a long time); if your fists aren’t balled up in anticipation as Riggan pounds on the door of that stage, there may be something medically wrong with you.
Speaking of elevation, there’s also the small matter of the levitating and such. Riggan’s apparent powers of telekinesis and flight – be they real or not – may be too much for some viewers to grasp, but simply suspending that disbelief and flying through New York with our beleaguered protagonist is endlessly more enjoyable than demanding an explanation for it.
Yet alongside this strand of magic realism, the film poses numerous questions about real modern life, about the nature of art and fame in a world in which the Internet is king. After Riggan is filmed pacing through Times Square in his pants after being locked out of the theatre (he is clothed for most of the movie, I promise), Sam shows him that the video has gone viral. ‘Believe it or not, this is power’, she tells him, and we know it to be true.
But where does real power for Riggan lie? In Broadway or in Birdman? With commercial success or cultural integrity? The movie itself seems to have performed that rare feat of combining both; I saw the film in my hometown’s cinema, which usually offers much more mainstream fodder, so to see such a packed screening watching something so unorthodox was a heartening sight. Rarely does a film so dizzyingly and delightfully odd make such an impression on the commercial market, so go out and see it before it’s too late. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll believe a man can fly (you might get a headache too, but you’ll be happy about it). Whether Riggan succeeds or not, you’ll have to watch to see. But Iñárritu? Well, he may have just ascended.