Warning: This review discusses the film’s ending.
With Birdman’s poisonous exchange between Michael Keaton’s former Hollywood star turned cultural aspirant and venomous, tinsel town hating theatre critic Lindsay Duncan in mind, I’ll try to make this review useful. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film and theatre satire is not a lazy piece, so deserves something more than Keaton’s hated affixation of labels. Structure! Technique! Intension! That’s Iñárritu’s instruction to the critical fraternity – a subtle attempt at gerrymandering notices.
Iñárritu doesn’t want his film reduced to the status of “kooky”, “offbeat”, “intertexual” or “post-modern”, though all are reasonable shorthand. He wants us to talk at great length about the play within a film, the bogus, though often technically seamless single shot delivery of the story that, with few conspicuous cuts, apes a stream of consciousness, or effortless segue in prose from one scene to another without hard transitions, dialogically representing Keaton’s mental separation – a man looking down on himself during a moment of crunching anxiety. He wants us to talk about the drum solo score, a signifier of emotional turbulence, both diegetic and non-diegetic, that like everything else in this picture, blends the world of the film with the experience of watching it. He’s also very keen that we should read the movie as a treatise on art, both popular and niche, on the public appetite for sensation over cognitive heavy lifting, and on cinema’s love of eating itself. So I must remember to mention those things.
If we’re prepared to stow our admiration for the formal cleverness and state of the arts commentary that packages the movie, just for a moment mind, we can say that Birdman is fundamentally a mid-life crisis flick that for all its accoutrements settles for the family restoration on which so many Hollywood movies rely for their emotional and audience grooming effects. Would it have been a stronger-still movie had Keaton blown his brains out at the close instead of obliterating his conk? I think so, as that would have shown due cynicism for the kind of art in search of truth bullshit espoused by Ed Norton’s method actor and preening pseud, Mike Shiner. Instead there’s a fantasy payoff – a moment of transcendent aspiration facilitated by a comet that gives the audience its unreality fix. We leave the movie content we’ve had it both ways – witnesses to a mind in freefall that ultimately ascends thanks to an import from the world of the Hollywood blockbuster.
Audiences drawn in by the director’s mesmerising method will no doubt pick up the reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the suggestion that the story’s a modern day retelling of the same, but we’re not going to insult Iñárritu by suggesting that he’d reach for a high brow crutch like that to shore up the film’s artistic credentials, with all the assumptions about the literary being superior packed therein, when the name of the game is to show that the movies have a magic and ethereal quality that other narrative mediums lack.
Ultimately Birdman works best and lives longest in the memory, not as a formal experiment, but as an excellent trawl though the psyche of insecure actors (which is surely all of them). Michael Keaton’s make or break character (forget talk of him playing a version of himself – he isn’t) has enough interiority and shading to furnish a Raymond Carver story, while Ed Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone are suitably rich and tormented supporting players. Consequently the play turns out not to be the thing after all; it’s the psychological intrigue, augmented by technique, which marks the film out as a superior excavation of the curious folk who dedicate their lives to being other people and hope for our respect in return.