Much has been made of the Meta premise of Michael Keaton playing an ageing actor, once famous for playing an iconic superhero, looking to prove his artistic integrity by mounting a Broadway play but there’s so much more to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s technically dazzling, intensely personal and kinetic film than that one single gimmick.
Ingeniously filmed to appear to be one continuous, fluid tracking shot, we float through the theatre, often over the shoulder of washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton) as he attempts to stage a play he has adapted himself with the help of his lifelong friend Jake (Galifianakis) all the while coping with the politics, egos and chaos of theatrical and domestic life. The storytelling fascinatingly layered, with elements of fantasy, reality and drama blending into a compulsive and darkly whimsical fable which sharply critiques the current fad for vacuous action blockbusters where special effects and gratuitous spectacle are an end in themselves.
After phoning it in in “RoboCop” and doing, well, whatever that was in “Need For Speed”, “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)” is a welcome reminder that Michael Keaton is one hell of an actor. He is the mesmeric core of this film and he delivers a searingly intimate and brutally honest portrayal of a faded icon desperate for one last chance at artistic relevancy and redemption. He’s surrounded by a fantastic cast, including an on-form Edward Norton as arrogant box office draw Mike Shiner and Emma Stone as Riggan’s estranged daughter. Naomi Watts continues to atone for the awful “Diana” with a superb turn as Shiner’s girlfriend and co-star while Lindsay Duncan is coldly ruthless as an influential theatre critic, determined to crush Riggan’s artistic ambitions.
As the personal and professional dramas unfold and intertwine, they’re accompanied by a syncopatically percussive soundtrack from jazz drummer Antonio Sánchez, a sound so intrusive and yet so appropriate that it becomes an important presence in its own right, an additional character.
Deliberately, deliciously ambiguous, “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)” is a film that demands your full attention but rewards it with a film which succeeds artistically on every level. Keaton is magnificent, and he is matched by an ensemble and a film that merits the performance he gives. An unmissable cinematic start to 2015.