Miracle on 44th Street

Film review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu)

By Sascha Krieger

The drum is beating relentlessly as the camera moves down narrow and shabby corridors, pauses in an actor’s backstage dressing room, both of them seeming to have their best days long behind them, the movement, the claustrophobic space and the drumming intensifying to a foreboding, threatening atmosphere that turns this dirty underbelly of Broadway glamour into the darkness of a tortured man’s soul. Michael Keaton who was Batman plays Riggan Thomson who was Birdman. A former movie star way past his prime trying to resurrect his career by turning to the stage, establishing himself as a serious actor and battling more himself, his diminished self-worth, his shortcomings as a husband and father than any outside pressure. His demons are with him – literally, in a move that quotes Keaton’s Batman days. Keaton, a seemingly washed-up has-been plays a seemingly washed-up has-been – and he does so with a force, an honesty, a self-effacing radical relentlessness that would guarantee his an Academy Award almost any year (though perhaps not this one due to Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking). A man struggling between outside appearance and a growing inability to escape the inner voice, Keaton’s performance is one for the ages.

© 2015 Twentieth Century Fox

© 2015 Twentieth Century Fox

Alejandro González Iñárritu has the camera follow his protagonist with intricate and never-ending tracking shots as we accompany him through the labyrinth that is a theatre’s hidden undergrowth and the maze of a trouble soul. The rhythm of the camera, the nervous pounding of the drum, the tortured dishevelment of Keaton’s face all convey the sense of a human soul and mind becoming unhinged and struggling to recover any sanity he can muster. The existential fight of an individual navigating the shaky line between the personal and the public. González Iñárritu effortlessly moves from the naturalistic to the delusional and the dream-like fantastic as reality ans imagination become harder and harder to tell apart. He bridges that fragile frontier as well as time gaps in single, apparent unedited shots, time and space become fluid and as unstable as the protagonist’s mind. Keaton is surrounded by a staler cast led by Edward Norton playing a sociopathic actor whose search for truth has turned him into an extremist in life and work. He is Keaton’s nemesis, foil, catalyst to unleash his power. Then there are Emma Stone as Riggan’s troubled and ever angry daughter, Zach Galifianakis as loyal friend and choleric manager, Naomi Watt’s as a self-conscious actress impatient to make it and Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s lover torn between cynicism and a longing for closeness.

As good as the cast is, the miracle this film is lies in its ingenious story-telling. How Alejandro González Iñárritu weaves camera, editing sound and Keaton’s acting together, the way he combines drama, fantasy, comedy and satire (his portrait of the New York theatre industry is quite poignant), how he infuses it with New York’s manic heartbeat and has it all mirror in Michael Keaton’s face has not been seen in film before. In an Oscar year in which Richard Linklater redefined film making by stretching time beyond the hitherto feasible, González Iñárritu reimagines the possibilities of filmic story-telling. Birdman is one of those films where the critic’s pen must fail. It needs to be more than seen, it has to be experienced as the complex and ridiculous symphony of light and dark, of the universal and the trivial, of the human condition and poignantly funny comedy that it is.

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