Birdman (15) Running time 1hr 59mins Rating:***** Alejandro González Iñárritu is not a prolific director. But what he lacks in quantity of output, he more than makes up for in quality.
In 2003, the Mexican maverick explored fate and intertwining lives in 21 Grams, much as he did in Babel three years later. Interconnecting stories is also a device he used in 2000 Spanish-language feature Amores Perros. In his latest, Birdman – a black comedy about a former movie star looking for fulfilment through the theatre – he’s interested in building a character study. What actually unites all of Iñárritu’s films is an obsession with examining the human condition. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), ageing star of superhero franchise Birdman, wants to make his mark on Broadway, adapting, directing and starring in a version of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In the run-up to a series of preview performances ahead of the upcoming all-important opening night, Riggan is plagued by an internal monologue voiced by his Birdman alter-ego, as well as by fantasies of flight and telekinesis. As Riggan doubts himself and questions his talent, worth, relevance and character, those around him – including his daughter and fellow cast members – reveal and revel in their own insecurities and idiosyncracies. The question everyone’s asking is: will everything be all right on the night? While Birdman may be a comedy, it’s also a brutally honest portrait of an actor and associated personality traits. Keaton’s washed-up star is the main focus but the other actors universalise the notion that actors are cripplingly narcissistic and dogged by self-doubt. Throughout his life, Riggan has been consumed by his ego and vocation – so much so that he ruins his relationships with his wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter (Emma Stone). Technically, Birdman is a stunning achievement. It has the appearance of one long, continuous shot and as such, choreography, direction and performances have to be faultless. What this does is create a film that plays out like theatre – like the play within it – but because we’re seeing through a camera, we’re given so much more. The camera glides like a bird in flight through the labyrinthine backstage theatre corridors, seemingly unable to break out of the walled cage. It’s an effective metaphor for Riggan’s imprisonment within his own mind, and gives a claustrophobic, dizzying effect. Flitting in and out of fantasy and reality, and acting and actuality, the film frequently blurs the lines between both to deliberately confusing effect, again echoing Riggan’s state of mind. A commentary on the emptiness of Hollywood, Birdman is bitingly satirical and a wonderfully rich and layered work of art that’s a really rewarding watch.