Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is an intoxicating meditation on self-validation and the mechanism of fame. As the first of its two titles suggest, it discusses these topics largely through a pastiche of superhero films; seldom using tropes from the genre itself, instead focusing on what happens next for the actors who play them. Iñárritu’s muse is Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), an action hero has-been who strives for continued relevance in an increasingly disposable, viral marketplace. His chosen method – to direct, write and star in a Broadway play – brings him closer to the edge than sanity allows, his narcissistic personality spiralling in on itself in the face of younger, superior talent. Thomas strikes an increasingly tragic figure as the film develops, repeatedly striving for moments of meaning and imparted knowledge, failing hilariously. His key flaw, as his ex-wife describes, is that he ‘confuses love for admiration’. This failing is brought to the fore time and time again, as his attempts to connect with his compatriots circle back to discussions of him and his life. He is incapable of empathy.
Yet somehow Keaton makes him empathetic. His portrayal seems close-to-the-bone, as is Iñárritu’s camera more literally, as we remember his faded glory days as Burton’s Batman (1989). Here, Keaton is self-deprecating (never more so than in a hysterical walk through Times Square in nothing but tighty-whities) and honest, laid-bare by the demands of a new medium and a new time, his ego subjected to escalating bruisings. Through it all, he remains pathetically funny and fascinating in equal measure, from his fluctuating on-stage performances (which correlate so beautifully with his off-stage narrative) to his supernatural powers which can only be practised in solitude. Keaton’s troubled soul, not to mention his hilariously gruff alter-ego, is tremendously watchable.
Birdman flits between objective and subjective beautifully, and when we happen to find ourselves alone with Keaton, rare moments of quiet in a whirlwind production, the space is instead inhabited by another voice. Birdman is somewhere between Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Bale’s Batman, a fusion of the former’s demented, destructive narcissism and the latter’s more humane brand, in tandem with his grizzled, hyper-masculinised vocal range. This split is what happens when you have the inflated ego of a superhero without the powers to back it up, the black flip-side to Family Guy’s Adam West comedy caricature.
Keaton’s performance is just one piece of a rich cinematic jigsaw however. Iñárritu’s wonderfully weightless, unbound camera flows between one vignette to the next, like the unbound consciousness of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). It’s an entrancing visual style, which can inspire some strange reactions – some viewers report feeling weightless, literally ‘swept away’ by Birdman as it were. Personally, I felt a peculiar disembodiment. On walking out of the cinema, it seemed like the sounds of the street were the work of foley artists on set, that my walking rhythms were coordinated in the same manner as Iñárritu’s labyrinthine action paths. The seamless transitions, which surely must use CGI but I’ll be damned if I can spot the real/unreal barrier, work so well that they permeate a certain barrier of veracity, mimicking a continuous relationship to the real world which is universally shared. It’s breathless, heart racing cinema.
The film’s undeniable artiness is predictably polarising, and if you have an aversion to artworks which may be considered ‘pretentious’ then perhaps seek a narrative with more typical appeal; or better, hold off the cynicism while letting Iñárritu’s intoxicating camera lure you into this tale of a man struggling in vain for meaning and recognition. For in the end, I don’t believe the film to be pretentious at all – it has many things to say about the hypnotic vice of fame, the post-modern relation of an actor consumed by a role (a note on Thomas’ mirror ironically states ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of a thing’), and the crushing self-doubt inevitable in post-peak narratives. It delivers on its aesthetic promise with well-developed characters who satirise the industry and members of the Twitter generation simultaneously. Edward Norton’s turn as method-actor Mike Shiner is hilarious, and it’s a treasure to see two great, often forgotten American actors play off each other. Emma Stone delivers another solid performance as Thomas’ daughter, his pot-smoking PA who brutally reminds her father of his (indeed everyone’s) meaningless position in the universe. Not to mention the sterling support delivered by Zach Galifianakis’ smart-talking lawyer, Lindsay Duncan’s frosty critic and Naomi Watts’ confused co-star. Birdman is the sum of all these parts, and still more.
It is Thomas’ flawed, solipsistic spiral of evasion which remains the film’s most touching focus. He shies away from any outside influence which goes against his view of self, an exaggerated trait which may be found in the best of us. Couple Keaton’s sensitive, triumphant return with an adventurous and uncanny visual style, and the result is an entrancing film which has physical and emotional resonance on any prospectively open-minded audience. Be swept away.