What is it about the mid-life crisis that is so ripe for dramatic exploration? Despite it being patently untrue, perhaps most people still cling to the notion that life will have been sorted out in some way. Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, delves into the mind of washed up actor Riggan Thomson as he slogs through the crisis riddled preview process of putting on a play at Broadway. Fighting to break away from his previous fame as comic book hero ‘Birdman’, he is writer, director, and lead actor in a move that will either buoy him up reborn, or financially and emotionally cripple him.
Riggan’s self doubt is manifested throughout as a deeper voiced version of himself. It criticises his choices and demands he give in to impulsive behaviour. The voice, an embodiment of his own Birdman character, is synonymous with Riggan’s apparent ability to move things with the power of his mind. The film coyly plays with this aspect by not making it clear whether Riggan really has any kind of special powers, whether he is simply visualising a power fantasy, or if his state of mind is truly unravelling. It’s all classic ‘mid-life crisis’ second guessing. Birdman belittles Riggan as soon as people leave the room, telling him what he should have said and should have done.
It would, however, be uncharitable to simply describe ‘Birdman’ as a mid-life crisis movie when the way this story has been put together is so unusual and laudable. Throughout the whole process of accident prone rehearsals, temper tantrum dressing room destructions, and in-the-wings nervous energy, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu streams Birdman as what appears to be one long unbroken take. Obviously, there are a variety of edits hidden in clever camera moves or day / night transitions, but the movie was genuinely shot with a series of clever, long single takes. The movie may be about the production of a play for theatre, it is also acted as if cameras are gliding around a genuine stage play.
Casting is expertly done here. Michael Keaton, widely known for playing Batman in the Tim Burton blockbusters, is virtually a meta choice for a man fighting to create his own resurgence from comic book origins. And if ever you need someone to swoop in and play an extremely arrogant and cocky actor then Ed Norton is definitely your guy. Norton, as method acting big ticket seller ‘Mike Shiner’, has a ball throughout. Keaton fights back demons and has thrown his entire self respect into making Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ a Broadway success, but Norton’s diva behaviour is gloriously unfiltered.
The rest of the supporting cast make up various sub-plot threads that ultimately spiral away unresolved. Riggan’s estranged daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone from Maniac and Aloha, acts as one of many guilt albatrosses around his neck. His too-late attempt at parenting at one point descends into her yelling at him that he isn’t relevant, and the silence from both actors powerfully punctuates the false comfort they had created around each other. Riggan’s ‘best friend’ and agent (Zach Galifianakis) is subdued by orders one minute, but demanding he be heard as his voice cracks the next. The one take approach means that we dip in and out of these tangential characters and plots throughout, creating a strong sense of life continuing just out of shot at all times.
Another excellent aspect of Birdman is the minimalistic score. Classical music is used at frequent intervals, but for the most part the soundtrack is made up of jazz drumming that clatters in and out of the foreground. Indeed, Riggan often walks past a drummer who turns up in increasingly odd locations throughout. Antonio Sanchez’s 16 or so tracks of staccato percussion give the movie and Keaton’s performance an increasing sense of urgency, and underscores some of the more fantastical parts.
Birdman benefits hugely from a truly rounded and emotionally hitting performance from Keaton. He can swing from vulnerable to self-centred and from desperate to egotistical effortlessly. This, combined with the expertly delivered ‘one take’ method means that we really feel we are weaving in and out of his life as he loses his grip on himself. Iñárritu had cast and crew rehearse extensively every day before filming them at all and you can tell each actor is giving 100% to nail their lines and movements knowing damn well that if they don’t then that’s a six minute shot in the bin!
From start to finish Birdman kept me gripped due to the sheer flow and quality of delivery. From off-kilter beginning to ambiguous ending, Iñárritu kept that going for the whole run time. “Nobody cares but you!” shouts Sam at Riggan, with him later uttering on stage the line, “Why do I have to beg people to love me?” with increasing poignancy. But with the movie itself, no begging is necessary.
Words by Michael Record