About three quarters of the way into the running time, as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman hurtles towards its conclusion in a frenzy of fluid delusion, a lone woman on a rooftop questions the movie’s hero, Riggan Thomson: “Hey, is this for real or are you shooting a film?” And the funny thing is, you can’t actually be sure whether this interjection is a mere accident, randomly but handily picked up by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s intrepid camerawork, or purposefully included under Iñárritu’s creative instruction to reinforce the movie’s core themes and messages. You can, on the other hand, be sure that this ambiguity was riddled with intent.
Michael Keaton stars as former blockbuster actor Riggan, once famed for an iconic but now faded role as the superhero, Birdman. Twenty years on, taunted by the terror of his own irrelevance, he is attempting to create something worthy of a legacy in directing, writing and starring in a Broadway musical adapted from the Raymond Carver story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Dramatic tension is stirred through his clashes with egotistical co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), and the fragile relationship he maintains with daughter Sam (Emma Stone), recently discharged from rehab.
One of Birdman’s biggest successes is its constant inversion of reality and make-believe. Riggan mentally absorbs his former heroic character like a provoking alter-ego, continuously reminding him that he is doomed to fail on his current theatrical venture and pushing him to pack it all in in favour of one last Hollywood blow-out. These hallucinations of Birdman, and the superhuman powers that come with him, are strongly indicative of his desperation to feel important and alive, and because of this he has one foot stuck in the fantasy of his past.
On top of this you have Mike, for whom the only time anything feels like real life is when he’s pretending to be someone else on stage – a mindset which prompts his increasingly outrageous behaviour. To Sam, social media is almost god, or power, but in all honestly the two are pretty much one and the same. For her, it has come to define the people that make up society to such an extent that it has as much vitality as life itself. All these things in combination serve to give Birdman the feeling that it is only partly hinged on some form of reality, or that reality itself is somewhat irrelevant. Hanging by a loose thread, it dips in and out of territory that is both meta and surreal, making for a mix that is playful but earnest, heady but not overbearing.
There’s social commentary on everything from existence, to cinema, to the audiences consuming cinema. It is put forward that in order to leave something worth anything behind, it has to be meaningful and therefore critically-acclaimed, hyper-artistic, philosophical – but this is unhelpfully impeded by the fact that what most audiences really crave is ‘apocalyptic pornography’. If something happens but there isn’t enough online buzz to give you 300,000 hits on YouTube, did it really happen? It certainly didn’t matter, apparently. So Iñárritu holds a mirror up to the tug-of-war between being worthy and being successful, two aspects of creativity that don’t always align – and coming to terms with that isn’t always easy.
There’s something quite satisfying about witnessing Riggan come full circle whilst feeling that Keaton has similarly reflected this by giving a comeback performance of the year as this personified ball of paranoid energy. Not just Beetlejuice, not just Batman, Birdman feels like a fine classic performance to commemorate through the ages. Stone also pushes professional boundaries in embodying a personality that feels like new territory for her – sullen, fragile, a hot mess – with an ease it’s unlikely that Sam herself is familiar with.
All these parts of the whole are unified by Lubezki’s brilliantly edited single long shot. Feeling like the camera is carrying the viewer around like a critter on its shoulder lends greater immediacy to the already fast-paced events. Coupled with zippy intermittent drum solo accompaniments, it becomes life amplified, resembling the world we know off-screen but more skittish. If the largely settled sentiment is that all art borrows from each other but some are just better at hiding it than others, then Iñárritu may have just forged an updated template.
Considering the way it plays with its protagonists, plot progression, and even the audience watching, it’s no surprise that this film is the result of a culmination of efforts on behalf of Iñárritu and three other screenwriters (Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo) across three cities. Between dream-like flourishes, fractured psyches and the occasional heavy bump of reality, Birdman delivers a storyline and a mysterious conclusion that are encased in layers of alternative reasoning and interpretation.
On the surface, it hits home on very human fears about the success and failure of personhood, not in any subtle or philosophical way but bluntly on the head; on a deeper level, there’s a lot of intelligent symbolism at play. One thing it does not deliver is resolution and this, bearing in mind our universal mindset but lack of answers, is the best kind of closure we could ask for.
Films By Alejandro González Iñárritu: