By Jack Ryan, For The Miami Student
There is a fight taking place in Riggan Thompson. An all-out, no-mercy dogfight between revenue and self-respect, between popularity and prestige, between his former character Birdman and the real man Riggan Thompson.
You can see it in his desperate eyes, feel it in the film’s rapid score, and sometimes, you can even hear the deep, raspy voice of the opposition overtaking Riggan. “Birdman” or (“The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), the latest from visionary director Alejandro González Iñárritu, explores these concurrent conflicts with such control and grace that you will be on the edge of your seat, mouth agape, from it’s opening cymbal crash through to the credits.
Michael Keaton stars in a Best Actor-worthy performance as Riggan Thompson, a former blockbuster superhero star who has faded from stardom as the years have passed. Riggan is now trying his hand at the stage, by directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but he is struggling.
He is struggling with his family. His recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) seems to despise him, he has already been divorced from his first wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and he is in a complicated relationship with his co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough). He is struggling on the stage, as his new actor, extreme methodist Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), is a double-edged sword. Shiner attracts revenue and reviews, but his techniques and rocky relationship with first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) result in various conflicts on and off stage. The only thing that seems to be keeping this play afloat is Riggan’s good friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis, in a dramatic turn).
“Birdman” uses Riggan’s overwhelming struggle with his identity to ask its biggest question: Is it better to sell out and be remembered or to respect yourself and be forgotten? Social media screams the former, but Riggan seems to wish for the latter. As he battles over the decision between true existence, or shallow immortality, his worlds begin to collapse and reality around him seems to warp.
He can move things without touching them, he gets put into ridiculously improbable situations, and late in the film, he even takes flight. Michael Keaton’s performance is so controlled in this film that watching his collapse is fun. Not once does he feel overbearing with emotion or lethargy. After all, the drum in his head is always beating, all the way through “Birdman’s” insane third act.
However, “Birdman’s” biggest success lies not in the performances of its actors, but its cinematography. The camera floats through the St. James Theater and parts of New York, lingering with characters for long periods of time and bouncing between them without noticeable cuts, giving the film the illusion of being shot in one long, impossible take. This method creates tension, as one small error could waste minutes of good work, and this high-strung energy resonates in the performances.
All of this awe-inspiring work is only possible through “Birdman’s” powerful script, a beautiful combination of intersexuality, satire and emotion. Many of these characters take after their actors’ pasts, making much of the humor feel like a clever inside joke between you and the movie.
Iñárritu doesn’t just mock his actor’s reputations; he mocks the audience’s as well. After locking himself out midway through his show, Riggan is forced to walk through Times Square in nothing but his tighty-whiteys so he can make it back for the finale. As he moves his way through the street, crowds of people surround him, hurling insults and praise, taking hundreds of pictures. They seem just as hungry for recognition as Riggan does, creating an interesting parallel between our pained protagonist and ourselves.
Before filming began for “Birdman,” Iñárritu sent his cast and crew a picture of Philippe Petit on his famous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, telling them, “Guys, this is the movie we are doing. If we fall, we fail.” “Birdman” has this same level of ‘trip-and-it’s-over’ ambition in all aspects of its being, and thanks to Iñárritu’s focused direction, powerful performances from a wide cast and an extremely dedicated crew, the film not only walks the line, it dances across.