Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s (21 Grams, Babel) enigmatic feature Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is undoubtedly the most highly anticipated film of 2014/15. With superb performances at its core and an unpredictable plot, Birdman is a deliciously satirical glimpse into the world of Hollywood and the chewed-up-and-spat-out actors left tormented in its wake.

It’s also a return to form for leading man Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Batman), whose penchant for blockbusters beginning with ‘B’ is the central, tongue-in-cheek joke of the film. Keaton stars as washed-up actor Riggan Thomson, a man haunted by his previous life as screen hero Birdman (a gravelly-voiced alter-ego that punctures the film with no-frills, crude commentary). Thomson is desperate to prove his acting worth by treading the boards in his own Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Essentially, Birdman is a play within a play.

The film opens with the quote that is engraved on the tombstone of Carver himself, reading: And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth. It is apt (albeit forgettable), as the film’s narrative circulates around a stigmatised protagonist seeking validation, but perhaps the profundity is a little contrived and misplaced for such a sharp-witted, indulgent film. Entertainment, after all, is why we go to the cinema.

Birdman is an original black comedy – 90% Birdman, 10% Batman – but that’s okay because Keaton stars in both. Even the deep, exaggerated growl of Birdman sounds eerily like his batty brother. The film is riddled with cheeky, inter-textual whining (he scoffs at Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr making a fortune in that tin-man get-up) as well as references to George Clooney (Keaton’s crappy Batman successor), Superman and Ryan Gosling. It’s an incredibly self-reflective, self-aware and most importantly, self-deprecating film in its exploration of the pitfalls of fame and fortune.

Brave and engrossing, it’s shot to look like one long, continuous take (so whatever edits were done are completely seamless). Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), roams the volatile and vibrant underbelly of the St James Theatre in New York, accessing all areas for ultimate viewing pleasure and experience. In other more exciting scenes, we follow a semi-nude Thomson through the hustle and bustle of a neon-lit, nighttime Times Square on one of his many breakdown breakouts.

Thomson’s co-stars are equally insecure. As a vain and leeching lothario, Edward Norton is a stand-out. The Fight Club and Moonrise Kingdom actor plays Mike Shiner, a popular, prima donna thespian who steps into Thomson’s play as a draw card replacement. Shiner is a thoroughly unlikeable character (perhaps a nod to his supposedly “difficult” reputation?) but he has bucket loads of charisma, and Norton revels in exploring the fine line between being a perfectionist and a pervert.

Shiner is also a narcissistic method actor, whose precarious practices involve a solarium for maximum physical transformation and literally getting drunk on stage. The vilest of his experiments, however, is when he propositions his real-life girlfriend Lesley (played with tenderness and vulnerability by Australia’s own Naomi Watts) on stage during their simulated sex scene. Although the idea is absurdly funny, Shiner’s forceful nature unequivocally constitutes rape, and as an audience, you’re left feeling sickened by his blasé conduct.

British actress Andrea Riseborough (W.E, Oblivion) rounds out the on-stage cast as raven-haired Laura, a sympathetic young scarlet in a loveless relationship with Thomson, and who may or may not be carrying his unborn child. Emma Stone (Easy A, The Amazing Spiderman) is on a roll, and as Thomson’s messed-up daughter she is one of the most magnetic.

Sam – a recovering junkie with daddy issues – is put on a rehabilitation stint as her father’s PA, a job that’s meant to be bonding them but appears not to be. She flirts constantly with Shiner – the only person to show her any real attention – but the extent or seriousness of their relationship is never fully revealed. Completing the Birdman ensemble are Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) as the production’s nervy producer, and Amy Ryan (The Office) as Thomson’s sweet-natured ex-wife.

Music score wise, Birdman is a treat. Mexican jazz drummer Antonio Sánchez improvised the entire soundtrack, which acts out on screen, rather wonderfully, as being mostly diegetic. The percussion sounds loud, spontaneous and audacious, and is delivered with a sense of true urgency. Much of the dramatic music is seemingly controlled by Thomson, his emotions and even random beggars on the street who sing or bang makeshift instruments just out of frame.

Apart from its lack-lustre ending, Birdman is one of the most exciting and original films to come out of Hollywood in a long-time. The plot is fascinating, and the performances are bold and memorable, with Keaton at his career-best as the titular anti-hero.

Look out for it at this year’s Oscars!


Birdman opens nationally on January 15th