There are some films that defy classification, ones that don’t conform to any preconceived notion of what a film should be despite having much in common with their predecessors. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is such a film.
Conceived by writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman is many things, but first and foremost it is a deep dive into the mental instability of a once-famous actor, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton).
Birdman is a thrill to watch from beginning to end, and Michael Keaton gives perhaps the performance of his career.
Attempting to reinvent himself 20 years after turning down the opportunity to continue his stint as the comic book hero Birdman, Riggan has decided to write, direct and star in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.
He is alternately helped and hindered in his quest by his lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), fellow actors (Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and Andrea Riseborough) and his daughter/personal assistant, Sam (Emma Stone).
The most noticeable of the high-wire elements in Birdman is that the camera and/or its characters are nearly always moving. There are only a handful of instances where cuts in the film are obvious; Iñárritu used long, extended takes and movie magic to make it appear as if practically the entire movie was done in one shot.
So despite the fact that the movie is dialogue-heavy, it has the feeling of a great action flick, almost never giving the audience a chance to catch its breath. Iñárritu was lucky enough to use the winding backstage passageways of the iconic St. James Theater on Broadway to create a dizzying array of funny and tense situations.
Also helping matters is a drum-heavy soundtrack by Antonio Sanchez that ramps up at all the right moments, and crisp and ingenious cinematography by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) that takes advantage of the claustrophobia-inducing setting.
The parallels to Keaton himself playing Batman in the early ’90s are unavoidable — and one of the key reasons Iñárritu wanted him to play the role — but Birdman is much more than just a callback to Keaton’s past. It’s a commentary on the perils of fame, the theater world, fandom and more.
Above all, though, it is thrill to watch from beginning to end. Keaton gives perhaps the performance of his career, embodying a man who is this close to going off the edge so well that you start to worry a bit for his own sanity. Most of the other actors put in great performances as well, especially Galifianakis, Norton and Stone.
Birdman may not fit neatly into any predefined movie category, but it is that type of film that often stays with you the longest. It is weird, wild and one of the best movies of the year.