Michael Keaton, in his underwear, peacefully levitating: such is the first scene of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman. This initial scene, oddly enough, sets beautifully the tone for the following two hours as it depicts Keaton’s character Riggan Thomson at a safe distance from the real world. We follow Riggan, a has-been actor once famous for playing the eponymous hero in the film world’s movie, as he tries to rise like a phoenix from the pop-culture ashes via producing a Broadway play. Thankfully, the plot is that simple, which leaves plenty of room for impactful character development, superbly effective visuals, and well-crafted technical feats. A staunchly poignant story, Birdman expressionistically explores the ties that bind – family, friends, spouses, lovers, work associates, and one’s own personal past – and how people willingly (and ignorantly) loose them.
With Riggan as the central character, Keaton delivers an excellent performance of a man torn between his own illusory world and the concrete jungle around him. He’s amiable enough to follow through the entirety of the film and shines as he portrays the estranged family man seeking redemption through self-actualization. Do not, however, get too wrapped up in what’s real and what’s not regarding Riggan. He is shown with telekinetic powers, and at times, with flying abilities (hence the levitation in the opening scene); sometimes, it would almost seem that Riggan is indeed Birdman. It could all be “real,” or it could be just how Riggan is imagining things after a life of playing a superhero in the movies. This is definitely the most stirring conversation piece of the whole film, so please pay close attention so as to be able to support your claims in post-credit discussion in the theater lobby.
As Riggan-centric as Birdman is, though, other characters illuminate the screen, and it’s interesting to keep up with which characters are rooted in reality, which ones share in Riggan’s ignorant delusion, and which ones fluctuate between the two (a character spectrum similar to that of Nightcrawler). Firstly, Emma Stone rocks it as Sam, Riggan’s millennial daughter who struggles with a drug addiction and an estranged father whom she tries to assist. Andrea Riseborough gives an adequate performance as Laura, an actress in Riggan’s play (as well as his lover). Naomi Watts plays Broadway first-timer Lesley, and she aptly portrays the apprehensive “pre-show jitters” to which any actor can relate. Edward Norton bridges the gap between the stage and the street as Mike Shiner, the arrogant yet talented actor who joins Riggan’s cast (after the aforementioned “accident” debilitating the original actor) and permeates more of Riggan’s life than the latter is comfortable with. Zach Galifianakis is Jake – Riggan’s producer, lawyer, and best friend – who strives to keep Riggan and the production grounded. Amy Ryan rounds out the main cast as Sylvia, Riggan’s ex-wife who has to deal with grown-up man-child that she left years before.
(Each character gets the spotlight at least one well-written monologue. I personally think Sam’s monologue about what matters and what doesn’t is the best.)
Another aspect of Birdman that adds to its tight-rope act of balancing reality and relativity is the creative use of computer-generated visuals, the majority of which vivify Riggan’s superhero hallucinations. In one self-glorifying scene, Riggan is walking down the sidewalk. He is being followed by his former Birdman self who is encouraging him to quit Broadway and get back to starring in the multi-million-dollar franchise. Then, Riggan snaps his fingers, and a fireball crashes into a building across the street; the camera then pans over to reveal the giant metal bird that created said fireball. Even as action-packed as all that is, though, the best visual is of Riggan flying. He soars seamlessly through city skyscrapers (with the hallucinatory Birdman commenting on how small and insignificant the people on the street are). Something about humans taking flight moves me, and I think it will move you, too. Kudos to the CGI team for a job well done and more.
The most impressive technical feat of the film, however, revolves around the editing. Iñárritu makes the story, which takes place over a few days, happen in only two hours with almost no cutting whatsoever. With the one exception somewhere in the climax of the plot (no spoilers), the film is practically shot in one take, with the camera weaving and threading through hallways and doors and alleyways and streetlights in order to keep up with the plot points. It’s a provocatively creative implementation of bringing the story together, and it was a thrill to experience. Again, mas kudos.
The last thing that impressed me (not to say that it wasn’t impressive, it just hasn’t come up until this point) is the musical score comprised almost completely out of a singular drum set. Some orchestral movements manifest themselves at certain points, but the majority of the underscore is the jazzy, swingy drum core. Sometimes, we actually see the drummer himself as he’s laying down the beats, and it could be argued that this mysterious drummer is just another part of Riggan hallucinatory problems. Either way, it spices up the storytelling, and we can thank Antonio Sanchez for that.
It’s the film’s subtitle – The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance – that gives Birdman its post-modern gravity, though. The phrase comes from one of the critic’s review of the play within the movie, but it applies to so much more. If we are to see Riggan as a hero at all, it is in that his willingness to ignore his friends and family, his loved ones, and even his own welfare (as expressed in the climax of the film – but again, no spoilers) has made him superior in ability and more appropriately able to chase his dreams of being relevant in an ever-changing entertainment business. After all, it’s a lot easier to fly for yourself when you don’t have anything or anyone holding you back.
Compared to the Gospel, though, this film dangerously misses the mark in letting God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Riggan’s endgame is self-actualization, a goal that cannot coexist with a God that’s already given us everything we need in order to get back home to Himself. Not only has He given us His son as our ultimate propitiation, He’s given us everyone else in the world to help us out in the day-by-day walk. Furthermore, He’s given us to all of them for the same reason, and to ignore our neighbors like Riggan ignores his beloved is to neglect our mission. Don’t let Birdman convince you to do that.
Birdman is rated R for “language throughout, some sexual content, and brief violence,” so I highly suggest bringing those filters to the theater if any of those things are a stumbling block to you. Once you’ve got that covered, though, just enjoy the experience. Get comfortable, get cool, and get crazy.