Birdman is unlike pretty much anything I have ever watched before. As cliche as that sounds, it’s the one dominating thought I had during my entire time with the movie. It’s bizarre, often surreal, and consistently excellent, somehow finding a perfect balance between the movie’s drama, dark sense of humor, and outlandish fantasy elements.
The fact that the very first scene of the movie involves Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, literally levitating in his underwear should give you a pretty good idea as to what kind of tone to expect from Birdman. It revels in its absurdity, but doesn’t take the time to explain it, opting instead to let the audience remain in the dark.
Which, in theory, should be frustrating. A movie that doesn’t explain itself isn’t supposed to be good, right? In this case, that couldn’t be more wrong. What makes Birdman so memorable is that it breaks the mold in every way imaginable. It takes the classic motto of ‘show don’t tell’ to heart in a very special way, and I love it for that.
Every scene and every line of dialogue feels like it has a distinct purpose in Birdman, and the way the story flows and evolves throughout its two hour running time is a beautiful demonstration in pacing and character development. The audience is thrown into a complex story without any sort of context, and it’s a testament to the effectiveness of the script that it still manages to make sense.
Granted, there’s a lot of material in Birdman that’s downright abstract, and there are times when I felt like the movie sort of lost its heading in favor of showing off the near insanity of its lead character. It serves a purpose, as it certainly makes Riggan’s fragile mental state abundantly clear, but I think a little subtlety might’ve worked a bit better.
However, even these abstract, trippy elements work better than they should, as director Alejandro G. Iñárritu creates such an electric sense of cohesion to his film that it’s impossible to not get sucked into it. Iñárritu’s directing gives the impression that it was all filmed in one continuous take, and for the most part, it works beautifully, as it ties every story beat together in a unique and memorable way.
At times, however, the trick became a little too obvious, and it occasionally distracted me from the immersion that the movie otherwise maintained so well. Other than that, Iñárritu’s directing is original and breathtaking in the best of ways, and the way he maneuvers through the environment, in and out of buildings and between characters is just amazing to watch.
With all that said, Birdman wouldn’t be anything without its fantastic ensemble cast. Michael Keaton is phenomenal as Riggan Thomson, and his performance can be subtle and poignant one minute and over-the-top the next. But Keaton stays at the top of his game during all of it, and knocks it out of the park at every available opportunity.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by an incredibly talented team of co-stars either, who all manage to bring out a different layer of Riggan while also existing as complex characters in their own right. The standout here is Edward Norton, who plays Riggan’s costar in the Broadway play he’s writing, directing, and starring in.
Norton’s character, the extremely talented yet volatile Mike Shiner, is a blast to watch because you never know what to expect from him. He’s arrogant with a touch of crazy, and watching him interact with the rest of the cast adds a great layer of unpredictability and sardonic humor to the movie’s already enjoyable dynamic.
Emma Stone is another stand out as Riggan’s estranged daughter Samantha, who recently got out of rehab for a nasty drug addiction. Samantha is just as conflicted as her father, and some of the moments they share together easily rank among some of Stone’s best work so far.
The rest of the cast don’t play large roles, but each make an impression with the limited amount of screen time they have. Zach Galifianakis is great as Riggan’s agent, and has some of the best comedic lines in the movie, and Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough both give in equally strong performances as two of the other actors in Riggan’s play.
The story Birdman tells is character driven above all else, but it’s also a gripping examination of fame and the effects it can have on those hellbent on achieving it. Every character involved has their own conflict to work through, and it’s truly impressive that Iñárritu finds time to tell each one of their stories, no matter how small.
As can be expected, however, the ending is more of a question than an actual conclusion. It’s ambiguous and open-ended, and while not entirely satisfying, it definitely leaves you thinking about it long after the credits have finished rolling. And in my mind, that’s always a sign of a great movie.