It is difficult to review a film which condemns criticism as “just labels”. Indeed, identifying the plot and themes of Birdman goes only a very short way towards understanding Alejandro Iñárritu’s cinematic tour de force. But here goes: Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), in an intriguing parallel with Keaton’s own career, was once renowned as the actor who played Birdman (read Batman).
We join Riggan as he attempts to regain fame and public adulation by putting on a Broadway play. Birdman literally follows this journey; the film is shot to look like a single take. Emmanuel Lubezki (who won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Gravity last year) expertly merges elements of magic realism with close-up pursuits of the cast through dimly-lit theatre passageways. This continuous contact with the story combines with Antonio Sanchez’s drum-dominated score to create a potent intensity.
Birdman will undoubtedly intrigue film students for years to come, as a result of both its complex, self-referential structure and its thematic richness. The exploration of truth as an essential element of acting caused me to scrutinise the central performances. Even combining this scrutiny with point-blank camera range, however, the acting remains both veracious and engaging. Emma Stone’s performance as Riggan’s daughter, Sam, particularly stood out.
The intricacies of a film which manages to consider the nature of celebrity in contrast to fame, the differences between the arts of theatre and of film and the effect of social media on the concept of ego cannot be easily encapsulated. One motif however, epitomised for me the ouroboric structure of Birdman: the presence of Phantom of the Opera across Broadway from Riggan’s play symbolising the successful Broadway production about the theatre and ‘the person behind the mask’.
I do think that there remains a question as to whether Birdman manages to be enjoyable as well as compulsively engaging but the associated post-viewing discussion alone makes it well worth watching.