Birdman is moving poetry masquerading as a movie. There’s a gimmick, in that the movie appears to be done all in one take, which is always a fun high-wire act when you notice it happening in a film. It’s an optical illusion, though, as the movie does not even take place in real time. We go through a dark hallway and come out the other end and it’s the next day. The camera never, ever stops moving, even managing to slowly move in for close-ups on someone’s face to show them reacting to something and then quickly pulling out again so we can see what it is they’re reacting to. To say it’s like a roller coaster ride is not quite accurate. It’s more like a tram ride. Always moving, forever moving. At first it’s fun to try to guess where the cuts are happening, but eventually the story takes over and we don’t notice anymore.
And the story is about an aging one-time A-list actor who starred in a superhero franchise once a long time ago, called Batman. I’m sorry, I mean Birdman. Michael Keaton is “playing” an aging one-time A-list actor who starred in a superhero franchise called Birdman. Get it? Aside from the meta joke there, I don’t think this is really meant to be an accurate portrayal of Keaton’s private life, just a fun coincidence. I don’t get the sense that Keaton is baring his soul here at all. And though he does a great job in the part, Edward Norton steals all his scenes playing a very specific type of actor: the narcissistic stage actor. Now, we’ve seen narcissistic actors in film many times, and they’re vapid, out-of-touch douchebags with an entourage of yes men and petty demands and lots of primping and staring at the mirror. The narcissistic stage actor is a different animal all together. The stage actor is all about the craft, man. He doesn’t care about vanity or creature comforts, or appealing to the crowd at all. The narcissistic stage actor will change lines on a whim, really make contact with your face in that fight scene, will mumble his lines instead of saying them clearly for the audience because that’s more “real”. I’ve never quite seen a character like what Norton has created here, and it’s thrilling.
The entire movie is just as thrilling, as we trundle through every hallway, every corner of this Broadway theatre, getting to know each and every part of it for two hours. There are some magical realism elements, too, as Keaton’s character imagines an alter ego speaking to him, the actual Birdman, who tells him he’ll never succeed as a “legitimate” stage actor. It’s whether or not Keaton’s character finally accepts this reality that makes up the final, wonderful climax.
Top image © Fox Searchlight Pictures.
9 - OVERALL
9.0 TOTAL SCORE