As the screen flashed to black and the lights came on in the theatre, I was overwhelmed by the impression I had just witnessed something great, without being able to fully comprehend the complexity of its greatness. This is an artistic achievement, a tour-de-force – and to steal a quote from a Taiwanese film critic – this is a film.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who made his name playing the eponymous superhero Birdman some two decades ago. In a desperate attempt to make himself relevant again – but unwilling to admit it – he decides to adapt and direct Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway, hiring his fresh-out-of-rehab of a daughter Sam (Emma Stone really showing some dramatic depth) as his assistant to make amends for neglecting her during her childhood. In the days leading up to the play’s opening, Riggan has to deal with his lawyer/agent, a stuck-up Broadway big-shot (Edward Norton, fantastic), a desperate wannabe Broadway actress, a possibly pregnant girlfriend, a loving ex-wife, a cynical theatre critic and worse of all, the gnawing voice inside his head – the booming voice of Birdman – that is the anxiety and self-doubt that he may never fully be out of the superhero’s shadow.
I left the cinema speechless, unable to fully process my thoughts. With its messages and state of the art filmmaking, the film is eclipsing in practically every way and almost beyond human comprehension. Yet how true it rings of life. Birdman touches on the nature of film, theatre, art, celebrity, fame and astoundingly even human nature. Art, when done well, gives us a glimpse into our lives, helps us reflect upon ourselves and the nature of the world in which we live. And Birdman does exactly that. From our fear of being forgotten to our desire to make something meaningful out of our existence, it broaches the subject unabashedly, holding a mirror up to the world and showing us the truth.
The entire cast is phenomenal – Stone and Norton particularly – and not one actor lets the film down. Keaton pulls off quite a comeback. He is spectacular and believable as Riggan, and you can’t help but root for him. It’s a role that’s practically made for Keaton – whose career trajectory closely mirrors Riggan’s – and the film knows this. Birdman revels in its self-awareness without ever becoming excessive. Its references are both high-brow – from the story of Icarus, Barthes and Shakespeare – to rooted in real life people and scenarios – from digs at George Clooney and Robert Downey Jr. to trending topics and viral YouTube videos – and yet at times the line between reality and art blurs. The film is shot in what seems to be one unbroken take, with the camera – and with it space and time – ebbing and flowing, seamlessly flowing into one another. It’s thrilling to behold, and you can’t help but marvel at the film’s execution.
The more I thought about the film, the clearer it became that Birdman is a real cinematic masterpiece – its story, acting, filmmaking, music, ideas, messages and all. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I’m sure it can be dissected to bits, and it should be, to some extent. Regardless, I am sure that the film itself will achieve what its characters desperately fought for – to be remembered.