Birdman dissects the mind of former superhero actor-turned playwright Riggan Thompson with pure ferocity. The film’s blissfully self-aware casting of Michael Keaton as the washed-up superhero acts as a play on the omniscience granted to audiences by the information era. As Thompson attempts to adapt, direct, and star in his play, his actions are tethered by his apparently never-ending role as Birdman, a raspy voice in his head manipulating his core distrusts, denials, and regrets.
Shot as if in one take, the film depicts the maze of St. James’ Theatre and its characters, punctuated by a drum-based soundtrack and shocking use of Steadicam. Despite the story’s claustrophobia and recurring sense of déjà vu as characters move around the same Theatre and New York block, no moment is left boring. Instead, time is transfigured irrelevant in the interplays between Riggan and the other players in his life, while hugely funny comments on the relevance of artists in the digital world abound.
In mimicry of contemporary society, connected through a web of screens, lenses, posts, and Tweets, the film does not appear multi-layered. Instead, only one layer exists between the film and its audience – a screen. The Skype ringtone, blunt references to current actors and events, and self-conscious casting (Edward Norton too, is known for being difficult to work with) give the indication that there is, even in theatre, no longer space for facades. A striking dichotomy is revealed between the common crowds striving towards the orgasmic experience of ‘going viral’; while the theatre-folk sacrifice personal fulfilment in order to hold on to civilization, culture, and legitimacy.
The film’s complexity can shun a viewer halfway through the film, as it obliterates the lines between artistry, comedy, and contemporary culture. However, Birdman does this with so much grace and only small hints of pretension, marking it as an Oscar front-runner and certainly one of the most distinctive and nutty cinematic creations this decade.