Quite often when a film performs well at the Oscars a certain level of cynicism is unduly attached. Some of the movies that initially avoid this appear the incorrect choice further down the line. This year’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to a movie that took home a further three of the famous golden statuettes. In a strong field it towered over the others like a bird in flight.
The movie opens with Michael Keaton’s character, the faded, former Hollywood star Riggan Thomson, meditating. What is instantly striking is the sight of him doing so whilst levitating cross-legged three-feet up from the floor. And so the almost continuous camera stream rolls on from there, giving us the first metaphor for Riggan’s mental state and perception of the world.
Keaton’s character is hounded by self-doubt, the need for validation, and the voice of the Birdman character he successfully portrayed in a three-movie franchise. His last roll of the dice, financially and from a career perspective, is a Broadway production of the Raymond Carver short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. From the start we see the turmoil descend into madness, dragging Riggan down in the process.
Strong performances from each member of the cast help the pacing remain concise. Not since Pulp Fiction has a movie felt so unique, fresh, or a redefining moment within the rules of the cinematic experience. Just like that movie, star-studded names give career defining characters. Admittedly, Pulp Fiction had more of those names, but the handful here are plentiful for the scope of the story. Edward Norton reveals another side to his range as he balances what could possibly be Michael Keaton’s grandest creation to be caught on celluloid.
Unlike Pulp Fiction, a movie that cut back and forth, we are thrown headlong into the story that never looks back and each step forward presents a new danger. As this occurs the inner voice of Birdman grows more dominant. There are moments that have clearly been lifted from real-life experiences. The director has worked backstage on Broadway productions, Keaton himself the lead in 1989’s Batman, the movie that arguably restarted the superhero craze for movie goers, and the scathing monologue from Lindsay Duncan as a Times movie critic encapsulates how “real” actors see the Hollywood extreme.
With such a statement being made in the film it could be easy to assume Birdman is a piece trying to defend mainstream movies. However, it is far too intelligent to pause on this singular issue, it merely acknowledges the point of view. Its moments of dark comedy also divert the mood away from a self-absorbed two-hour reflection.
Thanks to the perfect balance of cinematography, story, performances, soundtrack and the direction of the movie, few should argue with its awards haul. Sadly, it’s this recognition that has started to take away some of the shine. The rating on IMDb continues to plummet as people load the lowest rating possible to its tally. But make no mistake: this is a 5 star, 10/10 flick. It is the closest we’ll come to mainstream art. Anyone that denies its brilliance is displaying ignorance. Without it being a virtue.