After announcing himself with Amores Perros in 2000, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel marked his transformation from darling of world cinema to respected Hollywood auteur. That film’s glacial pace and emotional chilliness stand in marked contrast to Birdman, his latest film in the English language: this is a hyperactive shot in the Hollywood arm and a dazzling and unique achievement.
Birdman follows Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton in a role not lacking in irony), an actor most famous for his portrayal of costumed hero ‘Birdman’ 20 years prior, as he attempts career resuscitation by writing, directing and starring in a ‘serious’ Broadway play. Keaton himself is fantastically twitchy and self-aware in a career-best performance, and Ed Norton has a ball as the militantly authentic thespian that nearly derails the production. Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis round out an excellent ensemble.The neuroses of the cast are matched with frenetic writing and camerawork. The script revels in the gaps between actor and performance, art and truth, reality and fantasy, before collapsing those ideas in a climax that blurs farce and pathos. The cinematography is an amazing technical achievement: the handheld camera marauds through the bowels of the theatre and across the stage, getting in and around the actors in a series of long takes and disguised cuts which simultaneously expose the actors and distance them from us.If this sounds a little heavy, be assured that Birdman wears its thematic concerns lightly. It’s a simple story about an artist attempting to reconnect with his estranged daughter and his artistic values (reflective of Inarritu’s graduation from Indie outsider to Hollywood insider, perhaps?). And it’s enormous fun. Told with such refreshing verve, and with such a heady disregard for the rules of established Hollywood drama, it’s a welcome reminder of what film can do. Essential cinema.