Birdman, the latest from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, is a black comedy that follows Riggan, an aging, washed up actor trying to make a comeback on Broadway in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. The days leading up to opening night are plagued by erratic actors, personal drama, set accidents, and a theatre critic out to destroy Riggan’s attempt to distance himself from his Birdman persona, the winged superhero that made him a star. However, the biggest threat to Riggan’s comeback may be himself, as he’s ridiculed by Birdman’s voice inside his own head.
If all this sounds like a lot to juggle, it is, but the movie pulls it off brilliantly. One of the most interesting choices in the film is the way that it’s visually structured – the entire movie flows seamlessly from one shot and scene to the next, giving it the appearance of being one uninterrupted take from beginning to end. Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman’s director of photography, cuts between shots so perfectly that you have to be looking for them to notice them at all. The camera acts almost like another character in the film, silent but seeing everything while weaving between the characters. This visual style gives the film a perpetual sense of momentum, also emphasized by the relentless jazz score that carries on throughout the movie. These choices alone make it hard to tear your eyes from the screen.
The quality of acting in Birdman is also outstanding. Michael Keaton’s performance as Riggan is worth the price of the ticket alone. Keaton plays him perfectly as a man on the edge, staging a last-ditch effort to make something of his career while trying not to also lose his mind. Keaton perfectly hits not only the comedic beats, but also Riggan’s most human moments, giving the film a protagonist who’s both entertaining and endlessly empathetic. We may not like the guy, but we certainly understand him. The supporting cast is also phenomenal, particularly Emma Stone as Riggan’s ex-junkie daughter/personal assistant. Though fraught, their relationship is the most emotionally resonant one in the film. Edward Norton also turns in a great performance playing Mike, the Broadway-trained foil to Riggan. Unpredictable, pushy, and loyal to his art, Mike could almost be seen as a highly exaggerated version of Norton himself, and it’s clear that Norton is having fun with the character.
The most controversial part of Birdman may be the plot itself (I’ll mention a few spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the film yet you should skip to the end).The audience sees the action almost entirely through Riggan’s eyes, only breaking away occasionally. Much of the time, we’re left alone with Riggan in his dressing room with no other characters around, and it’s turning these moments when we see Riggan apparently making use of superhuman powers. Riggan levitates while meditating at the opening of the film, seemingly moves objects with his mind, and in one particular sequence flies around New York. However, since none of the other characters ever witness or comment on this, the audience naturally assumes that these events, like the hallucination of Birdman himself, strictly take place Riggan’s mind. Other clues strongly suggest that Riggan is simply an unreliable narrator as well, such as the actor arriving to the theatre in a cab right after he supposedly flew there. The final scene of the film throws this all into question, however. Riggan, recovering in a hospital from a self-inflicted room, goes to the window and appears to fly out. For a moment, you think that he’s actually jumped and killed himself – that is until Riggan’s daughter re-enters the room and looks up at the sky with a look of wonder on her face. The film then cuts to black, leaving the audience to wonder exactly what happened. Although some viewers may find the ambiguity frustrating, the ending is perfect for a film that never claimed to have definitive answers.