An actor who made it big in a superhero franchise in the 90s, after a few decades in obscurity is now trying to win legitimacy by writing, directing and acting in a play on Broadway, the ins and outs of which would be stressful enough, but with the voice of his superhero alter ego undermining him and the apparent skill of telekinesis manifesting, things are rendered even more complicated.
It’s kind of noteworthy when a film called Birdman starts receiving what can only be described as stellar reviews on the festival circuit, but when that film then turns out to be not another indie superhero outing, in the vein of Super, but a relatively hard hitting satirical look at the different facets of the profession of acting, by the super-serious director of Babel, then it starts to make more sense… but wait, there’s always the chance this could indeed be another superhero origin film…
Much of the hype surrounding the film revolved around its technical excellence, being that almost the whole thing is presented as a single take. It wasn’t shot in a take, of course, and the presentation of the narrative doesn’t try to trick into thinking that it was, but that doesn’t detract from the sheer impressiveness of it all.
Though seemingly an incredibly original way to present a film, the ‘single take’, in actual fact, has been a tool used by filmmakers for quite some time, with Hitchcock especially using it to good effect way back in 1948, with his feature, Rope; though it has to be said that no one has done it with quite the level of ambition and imagination as it has been used in Birdman.
Also seemingly the poster-child for stunt casting, placing Michael Keaton in the role of as a washed-up, regretful superhero actor, having almost everything he does be a veritable comment on the real actor’s life, blurring the line between fact and fiction, is, frankly, something of a masterstroke, as it’s accurate to say that the film would have lacked significantly without the presence of Keaton. Literally no other actor in the world could have filled the role to the same effect.
That being said, this isn’t quite as original a move as it at first seems either, as a similar, if more on the nose, variation of this type of casting was done with Jean-Claude Van Damme in the excellent JCVD.
All that comparison and accusations of stunt casting aside, Keaton really is remarkable in this role, in fact the whole cast, which also includes Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Ed Norton, to name a few, are on their absolute best form. It’s a masterclass in acting goodness.
The story too, though deceptively small, is perfectly formed, the narrative periodically dropping away to deliver scenes of pure character study, which inflate the running time, admittedly, and might not be to everyone’s tastes but injects the film with a wonderfully believable and grounded base as well as delivering nice distractions before the film punches you in the face with scenes of true strangeness.
These are the scenes in which our lead interacts with a voice in his head and daydreams of his telekinetic skills, but these scenes bleed into the ‘real’ interactions causing the film to spiral off into abstraction, but rather than being an artsy flight of fancy, you really do get the sense that the abstraction is working hand in hand with the lead’s state of mind, which slowly becomes unhinged, and then leads on to a narrative that becomes totally unpredictable, and just when you think you’re getting a handle on it something will happen to have you question the entire reality of the film, but only in a very ambiguous sense.
In fact, ambiguous is the name of the game, with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, giving us just enough of a step away from reality to have you feel comfortable enough, come the very last shot, to draw your own conclusions as to what you have just watched, and I do mean the very last shot, which is a genius little adage that has the power to turn the whole film on its head, if you so wish it to have that power.
This is all very vague, I realise, to relay specifics here would rob the film of a little of its magic, but trust me when I say, though perhaps not as original as it might initially seem, Birdman is a masterfully executed film that manages to be insightful, intelligent, interesting and abstract without ever seeming overly pretentious, and the added bonus of the film leaving its narrative fate in YOUR hands is brave and gratifying. Definitely one to watch, most especially if you consider yourself a fan of the craft of filmmaking.