1 January 2015

Film Review - Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2015)

Drama, Comedy
20th Century Fox
Release Date:
1st January 2015 (UK)
Running Time:
119 mins
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

There is much to admire and enjoy in Alejandro Iñárritu’s lively black comedy, Birdman beyond mere arch self-reflexivity. Yes, it is unquestionably amusing and absorbing to see Michael Keaton risking it all and more as a down-at-heel, former comic book superhero struggling to regain relevance on Broadway; but Birdman’s real triumph is in its ability to balance crushing despair and desperation with moments of total, uninhibited joy with an ease that elevates the material to a status way beyond that of a simple curio.

Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a once-conquering Hollywood A-lister and star of the Birdman franchise now attempting to reignite his flagging career by staging a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This is a last shot at success for Thomson who is seeking some form of personal, as well as professional, redemption after decades of irrelevance and obscurity. Thomson’s task is made all the more difficult by his unpredictable, method-acting co-star Mike (Edward Norton), his ex-junkie daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), plus the ever-looming spectre of his previous alter-ego, which continues to cast a shadow over his life.

Much of the buzz regarding Birdman has centred on Michael Keaton’s performance in a role that references and simultaneously apes and appreciates his past body of work. In many ways like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler a few years ago, Keaton seems to be going through a rebirth here with a semi-autobiographical, wry-eyed piece of referential filmmaking. Keaton’s simmering frustration and tightly-coiled nervous energy is played absolutely spot-on. It’s a performance that never feels overdone, never veering off into self-pity or straight parody; his mad focus is always tempered with a sense of sincerity and honesty which is genuinely great to see. Keaton looks odds-on to pick up one or more of the major gongs in the forthcoming awards season, and it’s no surprise.

Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki stitch together an indeterminate number of very long takes, near-seamlessly edited to give the impression that almost all the film is a single shot. It’s a visually arresting technique that chimes with one of the film’s most jubilant themes. A running joke sees much of the current crop of popular cinematic offerings met with utter disdain, yet this is also a film which celebrates the very best of the medium. Iñárritu blends surreal moments of insanity with seemingly impossible feats of telekinesis and flight peppering the film with droplets of humour, madness and outright joy.

For all that this is a movie that sticks the knife into bloated, perfunctory cinema; it’s also one that recognises all that is great about the art. It’s a pleasure too, to see Michael Keaton’s very welcome return to prominence.


Chris Banks

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