Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's satire on life for the 21st century artist is a complex, concentrated work that just might earn Michael Keaton a first Academy Award for Best Actor
Michael Keaton, the 63-year-old actor best known for his titular roles in Tim Burton’s Batman and Beetlejuice, is perhaps not the first aging Hollywood luminary you would expect to put on a performance worthy of an Academy Award in 2015, but his turn as washed-up actor Riggan Thomson in Birdman is likely to win him one.
Directed, produced and co-written by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman is a filmmaking feat; it plays out, from start to finish, as one continuous shot, a challenge for any director and one which Gonzalez and his crew pull off flawlessly. Keaton's grizzled face is front and centre for the full two-hour running time. This is no phone-it-in performance from an actor whose 1980s heyday seems a long way off; rather Keaton chews the role up and spits it all over the camera.
Riggan Thomson, typecast for too long as just another cardboard cut-out superhero actor, sets his sights on reimagining himself as an impresario of the theatre world, a thespian worth noticing. He wants to reclaim his craft and recall what it was like to experience some level of job satisfaction.
The film follows, quite literally, his attempts to defy his critics and put on a true and honest performance in a Broadway adaption of Raymond Carter’s short story 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'. Throughout he storms on and off-stage, negotiates with his supporting cast, and struggles to deal with his family and his own personal demon, personified as an angry man dressed in a bird suit with a bad habit of peering over his shoulder.
At every turn, our high-strung anti-hero runs into difficulties. In the fast-paced world of showbiz, actors are fired and their roles re-cast, relationships are made and unmade, all in a matter of minutes. The play’s previews, meanwhile, become hilarious, surreal farces.
When Riggan is not dealing with his volatile co-actor Mike (played with panache by Edward Norton) he is being berated by his recovering drug addict daughter (Emma Stone) who, in one particularly heated scene, delivers a monologue that attempts to cut Riggan’s ego down to size and instead succeeds in making him question his whole raison d’être.
As the omnipresent camera follows Riggan and his band of actors and actresses around the theatre, we are made voyeurs of their private and professional lives, witnessing the lengths they will go to to gain approval. In doing so we are made to consider the psychology behind their actions. But does approval come from making millions fronting a vacuous blockbuster, from gaining critical acclaim, or – as Riggan’s daughter posits at one point – from the number of followers one has on Twitter?
Innarritu asks us to question what we value in our own lives as we watch Keaton and co do the same with theirs; Birdman becomes less a rags to rags story and more a poignant satire on 21st century Western living, where our personal lives are increasing dominated by our work lives, where the demands of modern living push and pull artists and everyones else to the brink of madness.
The film brims with so many ironies and allusions to the trimmings and trappings of modern culture that it's sometimes difficult to follow the action, one finds oneself laughing so hard. But more than all this, the metanarrative that runs throughout Birdman – a film wherein actors act as actors – never fails to entertain and surprise.
Birdman is an inventive, complex and concentrated work of art which mixes mythology, magic and the mundane with incredibly accomplished cinematography and editing to devastating effect – if you thought Scorsese's tracking shot in Goodfellas was impressive, you ain't seen nothing yet. And with all of its complexity we can be satisfied that Keaton truly delivers the performance of his career. The list of Oscar nominations stands at nine, and Birdman is certainly due every accolade it is currently receiving.
Birdman runs in Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast until February 19.