2014 has been a great year for actors getting the kinds of role they truly deserve. We’ve had Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, J.K Simmons in Whiplash, Tyler Perry in Gone Girl, and now perhaps the most ingenious of them all, Michael Keaton in Birdman.
If I was a schmoozer extraordinaire I’d just type the word ‘meta’ and let that be my review in full. But I’ll go a bit further than that. In Birdman, Keaton plays actor Riggan Thompson, a man who came to prominence in the 90s playing the titular superhero in 3 films, making him a blockbuster celebrity at a time when nobody else was doing superhero movies. After being offered the 4th film in the series, Riggan decided that enough was enough and his days of ‘selling out’ were over. He would go in search of true art through performance, and it led him to becoming a washed up nobody.
Now surrounded by a multitude of personal problems (daughter just out of rehab, wife long since left, money drying up), he decides to plough all his remaining assets into a self penned, self directed production of a Raymond Carver broadway play. So begins our tale.
You don’t have to look beyond the film’s trailer, or indeed the above synopsis to see how much the conceit mirrors elements of Keaton’s own life. His portrayal of Batman in Tim Burton’s two caped crusader movies defined what Superheroes could be. And of course Keaton famously turned down donning the cowl a third time after labelling Joel Schumacher’s ‘Batman Forever’ script ridiculous.
And since the early 90s, when it seemed Keaton would become a go to icon of A list cinema, he has been criminally overlooked, underused or whatever word best describes his lack of silver screen time in the past two decades.
The similarities then, provide a kind of authenticity to Birdman that is both rousing and tragic. And despite the fact that the film is full of incredible humour, it is undoubtedly a bleak and serious look at the damage we are caused by our own ambition; that no amount of success can be classed as ‘enough’ when facing an industry such as show business.
From the off it is as if the fates are conspiring to bring down Riggan’s best efforts. A stage light falls on one of his key actors before preview night curtain, New York’s most respected critic has vowed to “destroy” his play before she has even seen it, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is disconnected from him and his needs, which she sees as outdated; in a fantastic scene of escalation she explodes at him, decrying his ambition as nothing more than wanting to feel important for one night, and who gives a shit about that?
Of course Riggan carries on regardless, but as events spiral further out of control, he is increasingly visited by the voice of his conscience, which also happens to be the voice of his character in the Birdman movies. He finds both comfort, delusion and pain in these moments. And whilst he never seems more alive than when he relives the past, it is nevertheless the thing he is striving to escape from.
With opening night approaching Riggan turns to noted thespian Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to fill the gap left by his injured lead actor. Shiner is the man Riggan longs to be; someone who aches for truth on stage and despises Hollywood (which is ironic given his request for a tanning bed in his dressing room). But again Riggan is left in desperation after Shiner swaps out prop water for gin on stage, leading to a semi naked backstage fight, and then steals the front page for his performance.
Thus the film becomes a desperate race to pull off a perfect performance, as a direct symbol for Riggan finding one defining moment in his entire life.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Birdman is its technical execution. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki craft a story that appears to be shot in one continuous take. The fact that the film takes place over a period of days of course renders this impossible, but the cuts are cleverly placed and sometimes even completely invisible so that the experience is one of real time. This in turn adds to the real world feel of the backstage environment, and the unravelling of Keaton’s mind as events come to a head.
But make no mistake, the film belongs to Keaton. He’s a man trying to scratch an itch that has lasted a lifetime, both metaphorically and at times through the twitching physicality of Keaton performing at his signature best.
I suppose the most meta thing about the film will be the inevitable impact on Keaton’s career going forward, where much like Riggan, he is bound to leave such an indelible imprint on the world that he will have his pick of roles both schmaltzy and artistic. Whatever happens, it’s just great to have one of cinema’s icons back on screen.