Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a fantastically spun yarn of faltering egos.
Alejandro González Iñárritu directs the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor in the twilight of his career who struggles to escape his role as the title character in the Birdman superhero franchise, very much echoing Keaton’s career.
This case of ‘art imitating life’ certainly appears to be dream casting. Either that, or the spark that spawned the entire film. Much like Being John Malkovich was a vehicle for the charismatic Malkovich to showcase a rather amplified and caricatured version of himself, here we see Keaton teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown that sometimes seems too real to be fantasy. Such is the power of Michael Keeton’s performance, I felt as if I’d just sat through an exploration of his psyche as if it were directed by Terry Gilliam or Charlie Kaufman. Take one part Black Swan, one part Spike Jonze and wash down with a dash of crazy.
From a directional point of view Birdman is an ambitious affair: The movie has been edited into one long take. Time appears to pass in the leaps of traditional filmic cuts. This gives rise to a strange feeling that time is a mere illusion to progress the narrative.
The pacing is kept fast and lively thanks to the expressive score by jazz percussionist Antonio Sánchez. The music adds as much to the ensuing chaos as both the performances and the direction, giving a fascinating Beat accent to the film (along side some fantastic Birdman monologues). Classical compositions by Tchaikovsky and Mahler, amongst others, give a rose tint to relevant romantic scenes in a rather cheesy but effective way.
A great cast supports Keaton, including the egotistical yet contradictory Mike Shiner, played by indie heavyweight Edward Norton. Shiner proclaims to be uninterested in others opinions, yet strives for fame. He lacks self-awareness, and can only be himself when acting on stage as a fictional character. It’s these quirky and absurd human traits that make him and the rest of the film’s characters so real. Little makes sense in this fictional world that attempts to demonstrate the multi-faceted workings of the mind, and it’s for that exact reason that everything makes so much sense.
Its with the film’s fantastic sense of wonderment and seemingly intuitive acting that the film’s alternative title, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, seems to hold it’s own: Sometimes the best art is unintentional and misinterpreted.
With so much emotional insight and offhand action playing out, this is one of the most interesting, dynamic and contradictory movies I have seen in a very long time. It unfurls with a rhythm that plants you to the edge of the seat – even if the film’s conclusion left me wanting more (or fifteen minutes less to be exact, before the natural conclusion passes to a more traditional ending… or as traditional as this fantasy could produce).