We applaud Michael Keaton’s return to flight in a magical masterwork with serrated feathers
The artistic wash-up is a recurring cinematic staple, with the likes of Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) in Wonder Boys and the Two Broke Thesps (Richard E Grant and Paul McGann) of Withnail & I just a handful of characters who prove what giddy delight we take in creative types who just can’t get their fucking acts together.
Part of the fascination is undoubtedly schadenfreude – the same pleasure in other people’s misfortune that motivates the sale of gossip rags and drives up Perez Hilton’s click-through rate. Another part would be a profound puzzlement with the notion that people who should be lording it over the rest of us with their volcanic talents could wilfully piss their lives away in whatever gutters they have carved out for themselves. And yet another part would be the magnetic allure of a fragile persona heading for the ultimate crash – the desire to pull that individual back from the precipice.
It is to all three parts of that troubled equation that Birdman turns its pitiless, vulture-like glare. Joining Tripp and the Withnail duo in the pantheon of dissolute imaginers is faded superhero-franchise veteran Riggan Thomson (an incendiary Michael Keaton), effectively squatting in the dressing room of a run-down Broadway theatre in which he is gearing up for the play that he hopes will cap his career with a dose of respectability: a self-penned take on the Raymond Carver short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In mounting the production, Riggan is running scared from his own past as the fleetingly world-famous star of the Birdman saga: a run of action blockbusters that came, saw and conquered more than 20 years before the film starts, and which his subsequent career has entirely failed to eclipse.
Backing Riggan in his final shot at the title is the ragtag entourage of his lawyer and best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis), assistant and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), actress girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and actress and former girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) – all of whom are subjected to various degrees of spite and cajoling by their bipolar and psychotic company leader. Indeed, the stress and pressure of Riggan’s situation are only heightened by his old character Birdman, who he can hear muttering away in the background about virtually every creative move he makes.
With the play failing to gel in rehearsals, Riggan takes the gamble of using Lesley’s links to renowned method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a searingly talented, barbed sociopath who enlivens the production as soon as he comes on board, but stirs up copious friction between Riggan and the women in his life. In one, knuckle-gnashing scene, Mike – who has insisted on drinking real gin onstage – publicly berates Riggan about his artistic choices in front of the play’s first-ever preview audience, before smashing up the plywood set to scorn its artifice. In an even more excruciating, later preview, Mike attempts to rape Lesley under the covers of a prop bed in a bizarre bid to add tension to the piece – an act he hopes will also give him respite from the impotency that curses him in real life.
Amid the barely organised chaos, Riggan further contends with an apparently insurmountable gulf between himself and Sam – a result of his fatherly shortcomings – and the looming threat of a devastating write-off from hawkish critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan, exuding Arctic gales), who provides scant evidence that she actually enjoys the fruits of the profession she writes about.
It’s a volatile mix. But just as interesting as the “what” of Birdman is the “how” – the way director Alejandro González Iñárritu blends this cocktail of embittered introverts.
The casting decisions are tripping over themselves with wit. Riggan’s background as Birdman deliberately echoes Keaton’s own past as star of Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, while Norton and Stone have their own comic-book adventures under their belts: Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk (in which Norton failed to save the green giant’s single-signature franchise) and Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man films (in which Stone essayed the doomed Gwen Stacy). Each actor has also famously chalked up non-franchise credits – with Keaton appearing in the likes of Clean and Sober and Jackie Brown, Norton heading up Fight Club and American History X and Stone adding her skills to ensemble comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love. Meanwhile, Watts has alternately cowered from the primal fury of Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, and been consumed by the Hollywood cesspit found by way of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive: films in which she plays struggling actors – just as she does in Birdman. In this sense, the casting is every bit as schizophrenic as the art-versus-commerce tightrope that the film negotiates.
Over and above all that, though, is Iñárritu’s stylistic chutzpah. Aiming to encapsulate the preparations for the play and the event itself as some kind of waking fever dream, the film is comprised of a series of tracking shots that have been digitally sewn together to give the illusion of a single, uninterrupted take. There are only about a dozen hard edits in the whole film, all of which are bunched up in cryptic montages at the beginning and end. Throughout the piece, Iñárritu’s camera gets right up into the actors’ faces – capturing every flicker of frailty, fear or facetiousness – with Keaton himself shouldering the greater burden of this piercing, crystalline gaze. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any film in recent years that has subjected its star to such unremitting scrutiny, with the exception of last year’s intense Tom Hardy vehicle Locke. As a result, the film doesn’t just star Michael Keaton, but a whole army of extras in the shape of the lines on his face – each one telling a story not just about the character of Riggan, but the actor who is wearing him.
Iñárritu seizes full advantage of the poetic license that his formal preference allows him. A single, five-minute chunk of the film may slip three months forward in time as it as glides around the corner of a hallway. Not a single inch of the theatre is left unexamined, to the point that its geography is embedded in the viewer’s mind – a facility that Iñárritu exploits to vivid effect by endowing the one-room apartment set of Riggan’s play with changeable reality levels. In one scene, we may encounter the apartment as a cheaply cobbled-together sham, as Mike holds it up to be in his drunken tantrum. In another, Iñárritu films it in a more concrete fashion, so it feels more like an environment built for a film. Then, at key points, the style goes even further and makes the apartment feel like a place where people actually live. It is a startling and seductive exercise in the hyperreal that commands the attention utterly and puts the blink reflex on standby.
Along the way, the heightened approach superimposes the rehearsals and the play on top of each other, so that the creative effort chimes with the end product and Riggan’s impossible dream of what it could have been. Imagination and the daily grind wash in and out of each other, in a way that recalls not just the self-aware, arty likes of Adaptation, Barton Fink and Being John Malkovich, but Postmodern meta-horrors of the 1990s such as Naked Lunch, In the Mouth of Madness and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
In its most sublime moments, Birdman also feels very much like the best movie Terry Gilliam never made, with its tone often calling to mind The Fisher King. In that film, Jeff Bridges played the, yes, washed-up Jack Lucas: a former superstar shock jock who is drawn into the world of Robin Williams’ homeless fantasist, Perry. In Birdman, it’s as if Keaton is playing Jack Lucas and Perry at the same time, with the growly alter-ego of Riggan’s franchise days finally swaggering into view as a crazed hallucination – much as Williams’ character was haunted by visions of an evil Crimson Knight in Gilliam’s soulful masterpiece.
In less ambitious and visionary hands, Birdman – a magical-realist film about self-absorbed wankers – would be an unpalatable mess. In Iñárritu’s, it migrates into the audience’s subconscious, there to roost as a by turns striking and uncomfortable cinematic memory.
Birdman is out now in UK cinemas.
Words > Matt Packer