Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Stars: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone
Reviewer Zachary Boren
The play around which Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) centres is shallow and pretentious. Until it’s not. And that’s also true for its writer-director-star Riggan Thomson, the washed up Hollywood superhero brought to life with astonishing dynamism by Michael Keaton.
In a desperate last-ditch attempt to rescue respect and relevance as age has begun to get the better of him, Thomson decided to adapt a Raymond Carver short story for Broadway: What They Talk About When They Talk About Love. The thing is, though he may know what people talk about, Thomson doesn’t actually know what love is. He just doesn’t get it. “You confuse love for admiration,” he’s told by his ex-wife, with whom he shares a delicate intimacy. He says he wants to do something meaningful, express something beautiful, but it becomes increasingly apparent that – despite his talent – Thomson is on that stage for all the wrong reasons: “I’m the answer to a fucking Trivia Pursuit question,” he mutters self-pityingly. He fears that he’ll end up like Charlie’s Angel Farrah Fawcett, whose death was overshadowed by Michael Jackson’s that very same day.
His daughter Sam, assisting with the play as she recovers from an unnamed addiction, cuts the core of Thomson’s great fear – that which both drives him on and prevents a path to actual happiness.
“Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is going to be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you wilfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who the fuck are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.”
This anger, though it may seem unfair since Thomson is pretty likeable, articulates the protagonist’s absolute narcissism. Sam is on point. Thomson even makes plans to sell his home in Malibu – Sam’s inheritance – to fund his passion project.
Thomson’s self-consciousness stands in stark contrast to Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the play’s other actor; a force-of-nature Broadway darling who Thomson both recognises in himself and envies for his effortless artistry. Shiner, who replaces an amateur actor who befell an accident on stage, enters the show as though he, not Thomson, is its lead. He makes changes to the script, telling Thomson he was over-explaining; he observes character motivations Thomson had yet to consider. He inspires Thomson to become a better actor, and eventually to seize control of his life – but not before he takes it from him.
Shiner gets drunk on stage during a preview production and gets violent and mocking in the middle of the performance, again taking issue with Thomson’s ‘lack of truth’. And then he goes and awakens the Birdman beast in Thomson. In an interview with The New York Times Shiner takes Thomson’s anecdote about Raymond Carver – that he watched him perform on stage when he was young and encouraged him – and passes it off as his own.
At one point, after a clutch of conflicts, Shiner tells Thomson that he’s ‘kind of crazy’ and should let that show on stage. Which is exactly what happens. After a series of preview shows during which Thomson progressively unravels, the play finds its life. Thomson loses control of his project. As he puts it, “this play is starting to feel like a deformed version of myself that keeps following me around hitting me in the balls with a tiny little hammer.”
But in the course of his breakdown, Thomson reclaims his story – and life – from Shiner, with the actor quietly receding from the film as its end draws near. By that end, he barely registers. This is effectively accomplished using a sort of cinematic free indirect discourse, a single unending camera shot (or near enough). That technique, coupled with a powerful percussive score, also serves to enhance the picture’s magic realism: the Birdman.
Throughout the film, and particularly in moments of crisis, Thomson communicates to Birdman, his superhero alter ego. Birdman is Thomson’s defence against feelings of worthlessness: ‘You’re not worthless, you’re worth billions’.
Eventually Birdman breaks through, and Thomson is empowered. How does his newfound strength manifest? Suicide. He’s no longer worried about dying on the same plane as George Clooney, he’s in control of his destiny. When he wakes from his Birdman-induced fantasy, he’s standing at the edge of the building. And on opening night, as he walks on stage for the final act, his gun is loaded. Liberated from fear of what’s to come, Thomson delivers the performance of a lifetime.
Zachary Boren is a freelance journalist. He’s been published by The Independent and The Telegraph. He is a member of the Screening Committee for the British Independent Film Awards.