Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is acerbic, scathing and merciless. It’s also quite brilliant, excelling in every area including script, production design, cinematography, editing, music and performance. Every character bares their banality, pretentiousness and insecurity, none more so than protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, never better), former star of the superhero franchise Birdman, trying to regain artistic credibility with a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he also directs and stars in. Riggan’s protracted expostulations, combined with an internal monologue from the Birdman character, steadily dissect popular culture and highlight Riggan’s failures while also proclaiming his continued value and relevance. Not only is Riggan at war with himself, he also clashes with everyone around him: his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), who constantly tries to keep Riggan and the play up and running; his recently-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who understands the fickle nature of the Twitter generation and is endlessly frustrated at her father’s refusal to face reality. More ludicrous are Riggan’s clashes with his fellow actors: Broadway artiste Mike (Edward Norton), whose attitude towards the art of theatre acting satirises Norton’s own reputation for perfection; Riggan’s lover/co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who cannot keep her personal and professional issues separate any better than Riggan; Lesley (Naomi Watts), wrestling with her own insecurities as an actor as well as a strained relationship with Mike. Only with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) does Riggan appear to have some measure of peace, though it is clear his own self-absorption ruined this relationship as well.
The relentlessness of Riggan’s trail of destruction is manifested by the film’s extraordinary style, Iñárritu and DOP Emmanuel Lubezki appearing to capture almost the entire film in a single shot. The continuous shot takes the viewer on a breathtaking ride through the theatre as well as the surrounding streets in several bravura sequences, one of which is a nightmare for many actors and another that takes the film into the realm of magical realism. These technical flourishes are never extraneously flashy but help pull the viewer into Riggan’s skewed world, ensuring that the extreme characters are never bereft of sympathy. Riggan is frequently (and fairly) described as an “asshole”, yet the viewer is drawn into the exposure of Riggan’s soul. Meanwhile, discourses including celebrity culture, art VS entertainment, critics and relationships are all drawn into the personal dramas. Yet despite its biting satire, this lampoon of the superhero film never feels mean-spirited, the laughter tinged with sadness throughout, right up to the denouement that even manages to include the fundamental theme of superhero narratives, that of hope. Amongst all its scabrous energy, Birdman finds time for warmth and a deep affection for the special kind of madness that drives people to create.