With a glint in his eye and a “caw!” on his lips, Michael Keaton takes the unexpected opportunity that is Birdman and soars with it. I don’t know if his heedlessness is necessarily the stuff of which great acting is made, but it’s exciting to watch regardless.
One reason it’s hard to tell whether Keaton is in character or not is because Birdman is a meta concoction. Riggan Thomson is a variation on Keaton’s actual persona: the former star of a staggeringly successful superhero franchise, Riggan is now largely forgotten. In an ambitious and egotistical comeback bid, he’s attempting to direct and star in a Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway.
Keaton is straining here, perhaps beyond his capabilities, but then again so is the character. As a frantic Riggan struggles to recast a lead role at the last minute, negotiates creative differences with his cast (including Edward Norton and Naomi Watts) and tries to crack the icy veneer of his assistant/daughter (Emma Stone), he seems perpetually on the verge of a heart attack. In addition to the physical excitability Keaton brings to every role, Riggan also suffers from what he calls “mental formations,” which mostly take the guise of the Birdman character he used to play. Mostly Riggan hears Birdman’s gravelly voice berating him in his head (“We used to make billions!”), but sometimes he actually appears in full feather, including a whimsical moment when Birdman is sitting on the toilet.
Keaton is straining here, perhaps beyond his capabilities, but then again so is the character.
In such instances, director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu shows a lighter touch than he has in overloaded dramas like Babel and 21 Grams. His camera, though, goes to great lengths to match Keaton’s hurtlingly intense performance. Birdman is essentially structured as one long single take, with edits being masked by “entering” in and out of various stage doors and the passing of days captured with time-lapse photography. The effect is exhausting; I felt like I was holding my breath for the first 15 minutes of the film. Yet along with Antonio Sanchez’s percussion-dominated score, it’s the perfect way to put us in Riggan’s restless head. (The roving camera also helps us orient ourselves with the theater space itself, which is crucial for understanding the creative claustrophobia at play.)
Everything Birdman wants to say about ego and fame and art is right there on the surface, and often explicated in the conversations Riggan has with those flickering around his dying flame of fame. Yet the surface is invigorating, and Keaton is doing a high-wire act from which you can’t look away. Perhaps it’s just because he has a scene where he’s forced to run through Times Square in his underwear, but there’s a vulnerability to Keaton that we’ve rarely seen. He brings a reckless honesty to Riggan’s hubris that defines the picture, even amidst all the flights of fancy taking place elsewhere on the screen.