There’s every chance you’ve heard at least a little about Birdman, the black comedy from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Biutiful, 21 Grams) starring Michael Keaton as a washed-up Hollywood star made famous for his eponymous superhero role. The film finds him as he attempts a comeback via the theatre, looking for respect through an ambitious Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Keaton's character, Riggan Thompson, directs and acts, all the while battling the malignant presence of Birdman himself (are these bouts of psychosis, or the trappings of ego?) The action takes place between the play’s first preview and its opening night, with all the messy, heightened emotion and suspense you might expect.
Cue an ensemble of wonderfully flawed and nuanced characters perfectly pitched by Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan. Norton is Mike, the brilliant but unpredictable method actor whose recklessness threatens to pull the rug from beneath Riggan’s feet; Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s just-out-of-rehab daughter and Galifianakis is the voice of reason as Jake, the long-suffering loyal friend and manager, serving as producer for the play.
While it might be satisfyingly “meta” to see former Batman actor Keaton in this role, the film doesn’t navel gaze on this coup for a second. It’s too busy hurtling along with a drum-led soundtrack, flashes of magic realism, moments of absurdity and acerbic insight into how we each connect – or don’t – in the world today.
Birdman gives the impression the entire film was shot in one long take, which serves to keep up the suspense for two hours and adds to the film’s heightened-reality, hallucinatory quality. This continuous-action effect was cleverly achieved by Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Academy Award last year for Gravity) and required the actors to work in theatre-length takes. According to Keaton, this challenge (Batman references be damned) is one of the reasons he signed on to the film. It’s all this and more that has earned Birdman its Oscar buzz.
As the film slips seamlessly from one setting to the next, from the stage to the wings and down narrow corridors to shabby dressing rooms, the woozy camera hovers like an ever-judging presence. Is this what it’s like to be in Riggan’s head? Even the few scenes shot outside the theatre offer no relief, trapped as we are between vertiginous buildings and swarms of tourists in New York’s Times Square. It’s a similar sensation to watching Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, but where that film feels hard and brittle, Birdman feels like it’s been soaked in absinthe.
If you’ve been anywhere near a cinema in the last few months, chances are you’ve clocked the trailer for Birdman and earmarked it for its Charlie Kaufman-esque promise. Trust your instincts, it’s as good as it looks.
Birdman has a general release from Thursday January 15.