Birdman review: The Audience is the Unreliable Narrator

In theory, Birdman could be the sort of film that should make you want to bang your head repeatedly against the nearest wall.

It has a gimmick laden set-up, publicity baiting stunt-casting, a soundtrack consisting almost exclusively of jazz drumming and a plot which involves actors doing acting about actors acting.

Birdman-PosterIt is good news for cranial injuries units everywhere that Birdman takes these potentially tiresome elements and forges them into a thought-provoking and entertaining black comedy.

Ex-Batman star, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor previously famous for playing ”Birdman” in a series of popular action flicks. Thomson is directing and starring in his own serious Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver book. After a rogue stage-light cleans out one of the actors, a well-regarded but notoriously difficult method actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is drafted in by fellow cast member and Shiner’s girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts).

We then follow the battle of wills and associated tantrums as the gifted enfant-terrible and world weary former star compete during rehearsals, falling out over Shiner’s lack of professionalism and Thomson’s lack of authenticity.

The kicker is: while all this is is all going on, we already know that Thomson’s frail mind is constantly pestered by his former alter-ego. He tries without success to ignore Birdman’s voice (directly from the Christian Bale school of growling) attempting to pull him back towards the character and the action franchise he left behind. Like an inverse Fight Club, we know from the very start that Thomson has a split personality and also that he demonstrates what may be genuine super powers (he certainly seems to think so).

The whole film is one continuous unbroken shot, a technical conceit that sounded like it would be a needless gimmick and distracting. The actual effect fits Birdman really well – it reminded me of Gasper Noe’s Enter The Void. In that film, the audience spends ages floating around from the perspective of the ghost, or soul of the dead protagonist, watching life carry on without him. In Birdman the feeling is that of an invisible spectator, albeit one that has access to the world as Riggan perceives it – which considering the fact that he is either a genuine superhuman or depressed schizophrenic actually conveys the role of the unreliable narrator onto the audience – which is a smart move and a rather clever thing to pull off.

What is great is that although the film is clearly a work of intense technical skill and planning, it feels chaotic rather than choreographed. Other long-take scenes (Touch Of Evil, Children Of Men etc) often feel like the audience is on some kind of motorised and carefully orchestrated ride – Birdman manages to avoid this by having the camera dashing around amongst the actors almost like a documentary, rather than swooping gracefully along clearly pre-determined paths.

After a blinding opening third, there is a slightly listless period during which everything slows down, before everything ramps up as the stress of the opening night approaches and Birdman threatens to take over Riggan completely. The effect is that the film loses a bit of momentum, especially during the scenes between Norton and Emma Stone, playing Thomson’s spiky daughter. This doesn’t spoil the overall experience, but feels padded out and a bit extraneous.

From the moment Keaton has an Alan Partridge moment involving a stage door and a pair of white y-fronts, everything is back on course towards the anti-triumphant climax and a further parallel with Fight Club – in that [SPOILER WARNING] shooting yourself in the head from point blank range is a far less exact science than I had previously suspected.

For a film with such an openly ambiguous nature, the ending is suitably open to interpretation, calling to mind the very last moments of Lars von Triers knockabout comedy Breaking The Waves.

LUC ANTICIPATION-OMETER UPDATE

Birdman was one of our most anticipated films of the year – with an anticipated enjoyment score of 7 out of 10. Despite the mid film longueurs, it has enough plus points to get an actual enjoyment score of 7.5 out of 10.

We are therefore 0.5 more entertained than expected. which is a result.

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