When I first saw the trailer for Birdman (2014) I assumed it was an out-and-out lampoon, a knowing tirade against the vacillations of actors and the movie business, one long clever in-joke. Michael Keaton as a washed-up former superhero? Mickey Rourke sprang to mind, as did Mel Gibson. A glib but enjoyable return, with scathing self-awareness.
The trailer suggested, and the film confirms, that the film has a handmade feel, a slickly scruffy medias-res vibe. Jaunty camera angles, bump-and-glide tracking shots and an unmistakably gritty, sleeves-rolled-up feel. The director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, began his career with such an approach, with the energetically lo-fi Amores perros, which is a pretty hardboiled flash across a caustic Mexican city, confrontation both in theme and style. As good as that debut film was, and as impressive as 21 Grams, Babel (less so), and Biutiful were (the latter fuelled by a remarkable career-best turn from Javier Bardem), Birdman showcases a director who seems less reliant on a fraught-frenzy feel. In other words, Birdman is a juggernaut that changes gears beautifully and corners nicely: some of the previous films burned themselves out a little before their finale.
Michael Keaton is an actor (likeably emasculated as Riggan Thomson) haunted by his blockbuster superhero past. He’s not interested in dining out on long-gone commercial success: he’s broke and desperate for a chance to prove he can act. We first find him levitating (and Birdman toys with levitation, telepathy, flight, astral projection and so on throughout: the desperate, manifest wilfulness of a man no longer in control) in a low-grade dressing room, fending off bleak commentary from a voice in his head which sounds a bit like Keaton’s Batman brogue. The voice — Thomson’s old Birdman character — bass-mumbles mockery, bemoans the actor’s current plight and pleads for another run at a big-budget outing. Keaton fends him off, for now, at one point ignoring the voice’s persuasions as Robert Downey Jr. pops up on TV to smirk through some Iron Man appreciation. Mention is made of Downey’s latest paycheck: no further emphasis need be made as to where we find ourselves. Birdman has fallen and wants to fly, just without the suit.
His attempts at going credible couldn’t be any more conspicuously unlikely or inappropriately earnest, on the face of it. He’s at a mediocre New York theatre (although Naomi Watts’ grafting bit-part-player is thrilled to finally be “on Broadway”) trying to make a go of translating Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” to the stage. The inevitable worries about the odds of pulling it off are exacerbated somewhat by the myriad off-stage dramas: Thomson’s dread at the looming inadequacies of his main actor, and subsequent hopeful daydream about a bizarre but emphatically effective injury to said hopeless leading man by falling prop (this happens); Thomson’s daughter (Emma Stone) hanging around, just out of rehab and more than happy to ridicule Thomson’s attempts at a credentials upgrade; a potentially pregnant girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough); a tensely supportive producer/agent (Zack Galifanikis) at times barely keeping Thomson enthused; a mercurial, last-gasp leading method man (Edward Norton), who’s both a high-maintenance maverick (and soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend to Naomi Watts’ starstruck leading lady) and a painfully honest opportunist, imminently likely to sabotage Thomson or sleep with his daughter, in between sunbed bouts (a sunbed he has delivered unannounced).
Thomson also fields inane interview questions from a typically diverse gaggle of journos, one of which is desperate, as so many seem to be, for him to drop the thespian act and get back to Birdman. He sinks into despair after a disastrous preview during which a plastered Norton berates him for “switching my gin to water” as everyone walks out, curtains hastily flung down as demons lie in wait backstage. He argues with his daughter about her smoking pot and listens as she demolishes his entire career. He’s not just an absent dad to her: he’s a dinosaur. She sees merit in his returning to big budget cinema as he’s now meaningless: her take on Thomson’s attempt at scrabbling together late-career respect is withering and persuasive. He’s kidding himself: he doesn’t even have a social media account. Birdman was numbers; Thomson wants, as the Carver quote that precedes the opening scene suggests, to be “beloved.”
Bridges are broken and others repaired; actors Watts and Norton’s relationship, already in a fragile and combustible place (are all such actor partnerships? Aren’t all actors by definition egocentrics or narcissists or both?) finally ends live onstage, as Norton, who is openly suffering from erectile dysfunction (the jokes and in-jokes and psychological thickets are multiple) gets a lucky surge of tumescence during a bedroom scene, and, what with him being “method,” wants to capitalize and “authenticate” the love-making with terminal results.
(Norton, who can do what he likes due to the tickets he shifts, inadvertently moves onto Thomson’s daughter, who buys his scathing honesty about his vacuousness as something authentic amid an abundance of fraudulence and fakery. He suggests he wouldn’t want to sleep with her due to ‘worrying about being able to get it up’. She’s so damaged that this, along with his shameless attempts at relegating Thomson to bumbling background figure, is refreshing.)
Riseborough and Watts quickly couple, as the former gives up on Thomson and the latter gives up on men, and the stage is set for the penultimate preview, which, whilst distracted by the realisation that his daughter is now enjoying a liaison with his nemesis, Thomson locks himself out of. During a momentary pause for a smoke, he steps into a stage-side alleyway, wearing only a dressing gown and briefs, and the gown is trapped inextricably in the door . . .
. . . and subsequently we get a cute little comment on the prevalence and power of social media as Thomson runs right around the block, through a marching band and across the gauntlet that is hundreds of people videoing and photographing his near-naked escapade. Of course, this merely adds to Thomson’s box-office allure and notoriety. He wanders right back through the lobby (as a video of him jogging through the NY crowds clocks up Youtube views aplenty) and into the performance, doffing his wig on mid-stroll, still virtually naked, clasping at a hastily proffered prop gun on his way onto the stage and playing out the scene to bemused appreciation.
The show stays on the road, just: Thomson sells the house to bankroll the moribund production. But a chat with the critic who makes or breaks such endeavours at a local bar suggests it’s all for nothing. She (Lindsey Duncan, imperviously sinister) hates what Thomson stands for, hates his eating up theatre time with a vanity project, and makes it perfectly clear that she will enjoy trashing the show, however it turns out.
Thomson wanders into a nearby liquor store, an alluring Shangri-La miasma of effulgent fairy lights, and grabs for the poison, eventually, after a strange encounter or two, settles down for the night on a nearby stoop.
At this point, the goading voice of Birdman becomes all-powerful and Thomson heeds his call. He’s woken up by his imploring former incarnation demanding that he sort himself out and return to the hero fold. And Thomson is ready to buy it. Birdman is now a physical presence, right on Thomson’s shoulder, pepping him for a way out of his dismal pipe-dream. He takes flight, landing on a rooftop ledge, at which point a woman pegging her washing on a nearby line shouts: “Are you doing that for real or are you makin’ a movie?” Making a movie,” is the reply. “You people are full of shit!” is her final word, but before Thomson can drop into the sky a man appears on the roof, worried about a seeming suicide jump. Thomson is briefly reintroduced to reality but ultimately jumps once again and we see him swoop and swerve along busy New York streets, under bridges, over heads and cars, before landing outside the theatre bearing his toupeed image. No-one is astonished at his recent gravity-defying trip through the city as his feet return to pavement: the taxi driver that dropped him off as he was hallucinating said journey is soon barging into the theatre for an unpaid fare. It was all a figment of a broken mind. I think.
But the old man is, possibly, back, however delusional. Bouquets fill his dressing room. Everyone loves the show. His ex-wife, who he has to admit he can’t recall exactly why he abandoned, is there; critical credibility may still be impossible, but the night is all that could be asked for.
My initial reading of this was: the bouquets are at his hospital bedside (we will see him there “for real” soon enough); he’s pointedly lay on his back when we first see him, going over reminiscences. He’s still hallucinating.
And the hallucination theory gains a bit more traction when we see him loading a real gun and heading out for the final scene, and the final moment, as he pulls the trigger and shoots himself in the head. Blood rolls and blooms on the stage: the staunchly dismissive critic is frozen with admiration as the theatre erupts in raptures. We next see Thomson in a private hospital room as agent Galifinakis salivates over the review and all the “people lighting candles for you in Central Park.” He’s beloved, across the board. He’s also got a new nose that looks suspiciously birdlike. As he peels away the bandages and sizes up his new noggin, Birdman silently watches. Thomson bids him farewell and clambers out of the window. Daughter arrives and scans the room, then the pavement below, before glancing upward in recognition and laughing.
So are we supposed to assume that, now he’s “beloved,” Riggan has got what he wanted from life? And can therefore end it, finally fulfilled? I hope not. That feels a little like the Taxi Driver finale: Travis picking Betsy up, the humble hero diffidently accepting her lascivious looks of awed adulation. Not dead in a dive after shooting up a pimp and other assorted deadbeats. I tried to look at the film a little differently: that Riggan has finally, via drastic circuitous means, resolved his differences with his daughter, who finally understands and forgives him. As she looks out of the window of his hospital room, checking for Riggan’s pavement-splayed corpse, he isn’t there. But he’s not Birdman (he was contemplating a return to lucrative cheese and that suit) either: a great review is in the bag (shooting your nose off on stage seems pretty authentic), he’s made the leap from commercial to critically acclaimed, and he’s freed from the albatross (or neuroses vulture) of his old growly buddy. More than any of this, though: he realises that he doesn’t matter, in the big scheme of things, but that he does matter to his wife and daughter once the spotlight is turned off. That’s what those final moments lead you towards: his potential survival off stage, career matters resolved or relegated.
Reading that back, it sounds facile and tidy, not to mention soapy. There are dialogue exchanges throughout that teeter on the brink of cloying or sentimental, and Iñárritu knows this (Emma Stone mocks Edward Norton’s character at one point with, “That sounded like Oprah,” and the film treads a fine line on occasion). But he also means it, and he makes it work. As with the best of Carver, every character, regardless of their vagaries, is sympathetic, and heartfelt moments are unabashedly confronted. They succeed with surprise, at their emergence and at their transience. Emotive payloads arrive amid chaos, at a tense, climactic point, and there’s no signposted upswing to elation. They simply come to pass, until something or someone else edges them off stage – a place none of these characters can seemingly exist for long.
This is finally what Birdman is about. After about thirty fantastic minutes of the film I was ready for another 60 or so of a kind of precisely flippant, torqued satire that would be gruesomely insightful, snappily convoluted and culminating in an opening night success or failure that would lead to a rueful or exultant coda. Iñárritu would tell us, with sidestepping guile, just what he thought about the psychology of the performer, the precariousness of the movie business, all the meta stuff you’re expecting.
But Birdman is much more impressive, and much sweeter, than that. Its recurring jazz-drum motifs, and the constant re-appearance of a drummer playing a scattering of insistently jovial reminders as to the off-kilter nature of the beast, make it feel suitably surreal, should you being to take any of this seriously. It’s meant to invigorate, this calamitous and gambolling tale, with its general vibe. And it does. All the key moments in the film are moments of restorative conciliation, or opportunities, largely taken, to resolve crises. The brusque and cynical dialogue serves largely as a foundation for much less pithy assertions. Keaton’s tender appreciation, right at a particularly disastrous moment, of Watts’ tentative last-gasp actress; Emma Stone’s daughter realising she’s gone too far and climbing down, silently; Keaton’s estranged ex turning up with initial barbs that become bittersweet benevolence; and so on. The film is not just (though it manages to successfully be about that, almost in passing – a great script and perfectly emblematic characters help: entirely brilliant performances from a great cast even more so) about a fall from and subsequent return towards grace, literal and metaphorical. It’s about how, whilst soaring in the box office charts Riggan Thomson didn’t enjoy it in the least, partly because Birdman fed all that was worst about him, and partly because his personal life had dissolved into chaos mirrored by the nightmare scenes playing out backstage.
Great directors — and González Iñárritu must surely now be considered as such, if he wasn’t quite already — can pull this stuff off. And Birdman is, I think, a great film. I hope it wins the Oscar. It’s, for viewers of a certain persuasion, feelgood. If it does win we may see more such curious, playful, generous films – the kind of work you don’t see on the small screen, which runs the pretty terrible risk of marginalizing such cinematic riskiness as this. We need more Birdmen; more experimental entertainment that dares to have it both ways, supremely entertaining and immutably cinematic.