Films about primal love, hate or fear, are common, but the convincing depiction of complex emotion is the holy grail of cinema. When film tries to portray emotions that are balanced on the edge of sanity or in the battle with inner demons of self-loathing or lost purpose, it enters a space where few succeed. Birdman (2014) is a stunningly successful black comedy played in emotional quicksand. Its tour-de-force performances, dynamic cinematography and multi-layered storytelling make it a benchmark creative work that should be seen by anyone who loves film.
The story is told through the eyes of a has-been actor who was famous decades ago as the super-hero Birdman. In the opening scenes we find Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) levitating and moving objects by thought, unsubtle hints of his tenuous grip on reality. He is hoping against hope for just one more chance at stardom by directing and acting in a little known short story that is adapted for Broadway. The story timeline covers the rehearsals, previews and opening night, during which Riggan vacillates between fear of failure and belief that he has again created something that audiences will applaud.
All is going chaotically well until a stage accident leads to a difficult but dynamic replacement being given the co-star role. Upstaged by the newcomer in front of his daughter and ex-wife, Riggan’s menacing alter-ego in the shape of a feathered Birdman incites his impotent rage and drags him to the brink of self-destruction.
While the plot is a formulaic exposé of an actor’s mid-life psychosis, its execution is extraordinary. The audience is teased with a complex montage of alternative realities where the actor’s art and real life become intertwined and confused. Vanity and ego are the lifeblood of theatre and cinema, and themes of mental illness and suicide bubble to the surface of this boiling cauldron.
The casting is brilliant and Michael Keaton plays the role of his life. The pace of the film is almost neurotic and quickens until it races with a continuous-take style of photography that is fluid and immersive. The hand-held camera often appears to struggle in keeping up with what is happening, while an edgy percussive-heavy soundtrack creates a visceral sense of breathless engagement with the unfolding twists and turns of the story. It is hard to fault this film. Indeed, it is hard to think of any other contemporary film that can fill this space with such virtuoso acting, filming and directing.
Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu
Stars: Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Edward Norton,