|Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, who cannot bear to look at the man in the mirror in Birdman.|
What we talk about when we talk about fame depends largely on when we are talking about it. A thousand years ago, the question may have been: Are you a member of a royal family or perhaps an explorer? A hundred years ago, are you in politics or some kind of war hero? Twenty years ago, are you on TV or the covers of magazines? Today, have you gone viral or how many followers do you have?
If it has not already, the phrase “Twitter followers” will soon be redundant. There are more people being followed on Twitter and more followers than many major religions can boast. The world of social media is a religion unto itself, full of arbitrary rules, rituals, hysteria, exploitation, abuse, worship, true believers, and those just dipping their toes in the water. The one thing it cannot offer – what most religions purport to offer – is any lasting meaning.
So what of art and artists and their search for a deeper truth? Is it even out there to find, or is it simply too ephemeral to grasp? In a hashtag democracy, in which influence and importance are measured in charts of trending topics, what does it take to create something of value? If it cannot be validated or dismissed in 140 characters, does it even have value? These are the preoccupations of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dazzling new film Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
The director of Biutiful and the communication-breakdown trilogy of Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, Iñárritu has always made films about humans’ deep desire to connect with one another and their tragic inability to do so. Now, he drops his latest movie into a world in which it is easier than ever to make connections with people around the globe, but Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo tackle head on the inherent superficiality of those connections.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, an actor famous for a superhero franchise he made two decades ago but who now wants only to leave a legacy of honesty and artistic integrity. In that pursuit, he mounts an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. It is a telling choice for a man who equates respect and admiration with love, though what he desires is all three.
For this role, Keaton is playing so many layers with such deftness and acuity that the onus is on the audience to keep up as he steps in and out of depression, madness, and mania. Thompson is a man who struggles everyday with who he is, who he was, who he wants to be, and whether he has any choice in the matter. Only an actor as comfortable in his own skin as Keaton could portray a character so uncomfortable in his.
Put another way, Keaton disappears into the role of an actor playing a character he wrote to be autobiographical while remaining true to his source material, and at the same time, he is haunted by the power of a role he cannot escape. If that description is difficult to decipher, it is not half as difficult as it would be to perform, but Keaton makes it look easy. He hits every nuance in every beat without ever giving the audience the sense the wheels are turning. It is instinctual. It is feral. It is brilliant.
To find one performer in a film acting on that level is a small miracle. To find a whole cast matching that energy and intensity, well, that is Birdman. While Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, and Andrea Riseborough are doing invaluable work on the margins of the story, Edward Norton and Emma Stone shine in key supporting roles, respectively, as an actor whose only obligation is to the truth and a daughter whose truth may be too much to bear.
There is no real villain of the piece, just a lot of people trying their best to be honest to themselves or lying to themselves about how much honesty they want regardless of who gets hurt in the process. Norton’s consummate stage professional Mike Shiner is the epitome of this. Brought in as a replacement in Thompson’s production, Shiner is a magnificent actor who makes the play better but whose every action undermines the heart of what Thompson is trying to create.
Norton is excellent every time he creates havoc for everyone else by searching for his own truth, but his best moments are the quiet rooftop conversations he shares with Stone. Stone is Sam, Thompson’s drug addict daughter who is fresh out of rehab. Sam and Mike try to connect, they try to be honest with each other, but they cannot.
They resort to truth or dare – a wonderful metaphor for people’s inability to tell the truth without playing games – and much to Sam’s chagrin, Mike chooses truth every time. Truth is all that matters to him, even though, as he says, he only ever finds it on the stage. Sam wants dare. She wants excitement. She wants something more than words.
This is why, when her father comes to her to apologize for not being there for her, she can take no more. She erupts like a volcano spewing vitriol. She strikes him where she knows it will hurt the most: his irrelevance. He does not matter and never will matter. He does not have Twitter or Facebook, she says. He is not a trending topic. His play could run forever, and no one will care because it will never get a million views on YouTube or feature on some popular reality series.
She intends to cut him to the bone and does, but in the same breath, she delivers an ironic indictment of her own generation. By tearing her father down for failing to keep up with the culture, she is exposing just how perverted and backward that culture has become. It is less a turning point than a statement of purpose, clueing the audience into the meaning of what has come before and what is yet to come.
In these moments, Stone is perfect, and when she reaches the point where she knows she has gone too far, she stops, but the camera holds on her face. Tears well in her eyes, but she cannot cry. She meant what she said but hates that she said it. She hates that she meant it. The beginning of an apology escapes her lips: “Dad …,” she says. But she cannot go on, and he does not turn to her. She has shamed herself more than him and slinks out of the room, leaving her father to slip deeper into the madness that has enveloped him.
He is falling, and nothing can stop him. That propulsive downward spiral is matched by Iñárritu and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki’s shooting style. Except for the prologue and a single climactic montage, the whole film is structured and shot to look like one unbroken take. The few edits employed are seamlessly integrated into the camera movements, and though the story takes place over days, each new scene plays out uninterrupted in real time.
What this means for viewers is that they dive headlong into the action, and for two hours, they never get a chance to breathe. The anxiety builds for the audience and the characters in equal measure, and because the camera never looks away from the pain, the guilt, and the shame, the audience does not get to avert its eyes either.
This is what it is to create, to pour your heart into something, to spill blood for something. Most of us never look up from our phones or our laptops or our televisions long enough to experience anything so unremittingly real. But Iñárritu has been through it, and he knows the feeling of constructing truth out of nothingness. Keaton and the rest of the cast know that feeling, too. And now, because we have the chance to live the process with Riggan Thompson, maybe we in the audience can get a little closer to knowing that feeling.
See it? Yes.