For an actor there’s probably nothing more appealing and dangerous than a role in a blockbuster franchise. Occupying the skin of a venerable, crowd pleasing character is highly profitable. The role of a comic book legend, or that of a literary wizard beloved by millions, could give an actor an unfathomable amount of financial stability and industry exposure. It’s an enticing proposition, especially when fortuitous sequels come about, but one that inherently contradicts the nature of an actor. After spending too much time in blockbuster land, or even in a particular genre, actors are seldom seen as artists. They’re merely an industry shill pretending they care about the craft of filmmaking and storytelling. Unfair as this may seem, once an actor is typecast, their attempts for artistic resurrection are futile. Sure, artistic rehabilitation isn’t impossible, with Matthew McConaughey proving us all wrong over the last two years, but re-calibrating a career is akin to a corpse re-animating and digging itself out of the grave.
This is precisely what Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) plans to do in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. Twenty years removed from playing the feathered hero named Birdman, a role that spawned three blockbuster films and copious amounts of money, Riggan is desperately seeking the artistic legitimacy he lost so many years ago. In an attempt to reinvent his career and siphon acclaim from critics, Riggan writes, directs, and stars in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” Riggan is throwing himself into the deep end with the production, spending a frightening amount of energy and money for an ounce of industry credibility. His effort reeks of desperation, and he knows his life is over if failure triumphs over success. Unfortunately, his fears exponentially grow when straining family relationships, an overly aggressive method actor named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), and an important Broadway critic threaten to corrupt his vision. With so much pressure weighing on his shoulders, it’s no wonder Riggan’s mind is often infiltrated by the disparaging voice of his signature character.
Riggan is a deeply troubled person, one who can’t juggle the demands of his cast with his own needs as a human. Now, casting Michael Keaton as Riggan is a cute idea, if not an enjoyable, one-dimensional meta joke. But Keaton is anything but a joke, as he comfortably slips into the chaotic mind of a man either on the verge of greatness or destruction. Keaton, an actor who has so wonderfully played frenetic characters before (Beetlegeuse comes to mind), has no issue excavating Riggan’s hubris for laughs. But there’s an inescapable melancholia cloaking Riggan’s resurrection; Keaton, recognizing this, finds a man beneath the madness. Facing off against Keaton is Edward Norton as the problematic Michael Shiner, an obnoxiously amplified method actor. Even though his character is detestable, overbearing, and a self-aggrandizing piece of shit, Norton miraculously transforms Shiner into a lovable, entertaining douche. Caught in the maelstrom of Keaton and Norton is a fantastic cast featuring amazing turns from Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, and Naomi Watts.
In spite of some highly entertaining and chaotic performances, the real highlight of Birdman is the bond between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Iñárritu’s direction is a form of measured madness. He boldly structures the film as if it was one continuous take. This not only pushes the film’s momentum to dizzying heights, the camera smoothly slips down and around the hallways of the film’s lone setting (a theater) with great dexterity, but accentuates the growing instability of our characters. The long take approach isn’t a gimmick, but is a prime example of a director operating on another level, while changing the limits of cinema in the process. As for Lubezki, well, Birdman is just another beautifully shot film from a living legend. The camerawork, the compositions, and profound imagery makes for an indelible visual experience. Collectively, through the performances, the direction, and the cinematography, Birdman is a triumphant look at an actor seeking the relevance and credibility from an industry that took it away from him many years ago.