Michael Keaton probably means something different to everyone. To many and most, he is remembered as Burton’s Batman. For children of the nineties such as myself, he is Jack Frost – the protagonist in the film of the same name in which a dead musician’s spirit resides in a snowman – I forget why. For others he is the life and soul of Beetlejuice; bringing a quirky Tim Burton character to life a few years before Depp first rocked up. Keaton drifted out of the Hollywood limelight in the late nineties – he spent the noughties in minor roles and doing an abundance of voice work for a number of animated shows and films. He showed up in last year’s poorly received reboot of Robocop but it wasn’t until the conversation around Birdman begun that we really felt his presence again. Birdman is undoubtedly autobiographical for Keaton which may explain his vigorous and complex performance. The movie revolves around his character Riggan Thomson – a former Hollywood star who’s coping with his dwindling flame of fame by putting on a play in order to prove his artistic worth. Riggan is haunted by the ghost of his former stardom which festers itself in a voice that plagues his thoughts. Whilst Keaton’s character attempts to deal with all the stress and chaos that comes with writing and directing a piece of theatre he must also battle to ignore the voice of Birdman that constantly mocks him. Birdman, the superhero character that lead Riggan to his original fame and fortune, now follows him – in interviews with the press, in his reputation, in his regrets and, most of all, in his mind. The performances are exceptional from the entire cast. Edward Norton and Emma Stone are particularly captivating and Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts also bring their expertise to the supporting cast. Keaton is on fire. He’s back and he’s brilliant. He is gritty, funny and tragic all at once, all the time.
The majority of Birdman was shot on location in a New York theatre, a setting that contributes greatly to the film’s aesthetic. The corridors are narrow and stretched – much like Riggan’s time, energy and finances. Actors, costume designers, journalists and lawyers bustle up and down the theatre’s skinny halls, each one bringing more drama, ego and panic to the project. The film’s ambitious use of long takes is admirable but ultimately distracting. Birdman would have benefited more from long takes separated by strong, bold cuts in-between. The struggle to try to connect every scene and disguise the editing ends up being all the more obvious and irritating. Still, you have to admire the film’s attempt to create seamless cinema. The camera rotates constantly, giving the impression of effortlessness and curiosity. Our eyes are forced to sweep, pivot, zoom and invade. The issue with having such a constantly involved viewpoint is that we see the way the actors react to the camera. In some scenes they are unaware of the machinery swooping around them as they perform and only moments later they are playing up to the camera – energised by its presence and altered because of it. I don’t intend this to be a criticism of the film’s quality but simply an observation as to how much I was focussed on the technical; all the time distanced from the story and character development. It’s hard to like any of the characters in Birdman but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to like the movie itself. Rarely do films re-enact life in this way – flawed, inconsistent and damaged by many distractions and technicalities. Birdman would be so effortless to like were it not for the final twenty minutes. The film has four or five great opportunities to conclude but it ignores them all – clattering towards a clumsy conclusion in a poorly crafted and anti-climatic final act. Birdman gives you lots to digest but, like any fine feast, there are sadly several sharp little bones that spoil a moment or two. Luckily Birdman contains enough rich gravy which packs enough flavour to soften the blow of the last minute bits of gristle lurking under the meat. It’s quite far from being perfect but it’s certainly impressive. Come and experience the quaint charm found in a theatre that can hardly contain the numerous egos that lurk inside of it. This is a complex movie and I keep finding myself with more and more to write about it. Birdman is blissfully self aware and revels in its twisted characters that it already knows we won’t be able to like.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.