Monday 19 January 2015

Film Review: Birdman

Birdman (or to use its full title, Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a dark comedy/drama from director Alejandro G. Inarritu. It sees Michael Keaton play Riggan Thompson, a fading movie star who is writing, directing and starring-in his own Broadway comeback.

It's a front-runner in this Oscars' with nine nominations under its belt - so, how does it stack up?

Mike (Edward Norton) and Riggan (Michael Keaton)
share a word outside the theatre
I want to kick off this review by making one thing infinitely clear - Birdman is not an easy film to put into words. It's a very illusive and hard film to pin down. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's left me pretty much speechless. But, given that this would be a very short and lame review if I left it at that, let's see what I can put together.

The premise for Birdman is this - Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an ageing movie star from the 80's and 90's best known for playing a character called 'Birdman' in a trilogy of heavily-commercialised comic-book films. Since then he's faded away into obscurity, his stardom and ego bruised by the diminishing returns on the 'Birdman' series. As a result, Riggan turns to the theatre to reassert his acting talent and repair his career.

His plan is to adapt the classic Raymond Carver collection 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' for the stage, but his attempts to dazzle audiences are thwarted at every turn by those around him, most notably by his co-star Mike (Edward Norton), an absurdly method actor who won't hesitate to change and tinker with Riggan's script.

On top of that, Riggan is struggling to reconnect with his daughter (Emma Stone), maintain a relationship with his partner (Andrea Riseborough) and keep a lid on bad press from mean-spirited critics (Lindsay Duncan). Oh, and one other thing - he's also battling schizophrenia, with the voice in his head manifesting itself as his past comic-book alter-ego, Birdman.

All of this takes place within the tight confines of the theatre where Riggan is putting on his play, with the drama leaving the pokey halls on only a handful of occasions. Couple this with Inarritu's decision to shoot the film as though it were one continuous shot (with minimal editing) and Birdman makes for a very claustrophobic and dizzying film where the audience literally and metaphorically follows Riggan's downward spiral into madness (or should I say freedom?).

Michael Keaton and Emma Stone in Birdman
It's an enchanting directorial method, one that is equal parts gripping and distracting. Thematically, this decision makes complete sense - as I mentioned, the audience is literally bolstered to the ghost-like camera that floats through the dilapidated hallways and dressing rooms, making the film feel very distinctive and special. On the other hand, I had to restrain myself from examining the camerawork too much as it took me out of the story!

The cast for Birdman is simply impeccable - it's no surprise the Academy has sprinkled love and adoration over the marvellous performances contained within the film. Keaton, who is nominated for Best Actor, clearly deserves to win. That much is obvious from start to finish. It's an a-ma-zing performance, one that is in the spotlight essentially every step of the way. So much of Inarritu's camerawork comes in the form of close-ups that pick up on every nuanced emotion from his cast, and it's here that Keaton's magnificence comes to the forefront of the film.

With nowhere to hide from the ethereal camerawork, Keaton becomes Riggan Thomson, climbing into the skin of a desperate and unhinged actor trying to protect his fading stardom and ego. Is it a role too close to reality for Keaton? Sure, there are parallels that can be drawn between the two, but that only serves to enhance the dark meta-comedy and industry commentary at work in the film.

That being said, Birdman doesn't owe its brilliance to one single performance - as I mentioned before, the entire ensemble is fantastic. As well as Keaton, Edward Norton deserves to win the Oscar nomination he received. Likewise Emma Stone. All three deliver powerhouse performances that resonate across the film, with the latter in particular giving an emotive speech in one scene that gave me goosebumps.

Even supporting cast members like Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis are great. There isn't a weak link, simple as that. Even Lindsay Duncan, who has a fairly small role as an uncaring movie critic, leaves her mark after a wonderful confrontation with Riggan in a bar.

The key question with Birdman is whether the film would still excel without the key 'gimmick' - and the answer is unequivocally yes. Not only does Inarritu's one-shot, zero-editing technique look marvellous, it (mostly) works to enhance and elevate the film to new levels.

If you can stop 'seeing' the shot, Birdman draws you in and doesn't let go. You feel just as trapped within the theatre as Riggan does, making for an experience unlike anything else before now.

Lastly, the commentary that Birdman provides on the movie industry, or the arts in general, is both captivating and wickedly funny. I really liked the satirical tone it angled at Hollywood, as well as at social media and how we generate and idolise Internet fame and 'going viral'. I'd love to sit down and watch it through again, to pour over every quip and reference in order to soak up everything it has to say.

The Verdict: 9/10

Birdman is enthralling, hilarious and deeply affecting. I can only imagine it would reveal further detail with repeat viewings and will be a case study film students meticulously pour over for decades to come. It's an unmissable feat of filmmaking that needs to be seen to be believed.

Birdman is in selected cinemas across Australia now. 


  1. Great review! I'm stoked that all of the praise for the film didn't set your expectations over the top. One of the best films of the year!

    1. Nope, quite the opposite in fact! :) Definitely the best movie I've seen in 2015 so far, but then the competition has been great haha :)

  2. Great that you loved it this much! I saw it twice already but I'm still unable to put my words into writing, it's such a rich and wonderful film.

    1. I know right! :) It's definitely a film that reveals itself further with repeated viewings :)



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