Viewers be warned: “Birdman” is not the start of another lucrative Marvel franchise, as the name may suggest.
Instead, the film is a personal, wild, and imaginative look at a fictional actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who once played a caped hero but has since faded into obscurity.
To reclaim the celebrity status he once held, Thomson decides to write, direct, and star in a Broadway play.
The film starts off a few days before previews for the play begin, and the entire cast is on edge. The audience follows characters as they frantically walk through the cramped theater, winding down hallways and up staircases.
The claustrophobic, almost feverish feeling of the setting is amplified by director Alejandro Iñárritu’s unique decision to film nearly the entire movie so that it feels like one continuous take, a technique normally considered daring when it’s utilized for just a few minutes.
Where other directors would cut and move on to a new angle, Iñárritu’s camera spins around the actor or finds a new target to the follow through the maze-like set. The results are both dizzying and dazzling.
While the cinematography in “Birdman” may be the film’s most innovative and impressive aspect, the visuals aren’t used as a crutch. The film is already peppered with phenomenal actors, including Keaton, who gives a startlingly strong performance, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and Zack Galifianakis, but because of the film’s unique style of long, uncut takes, the actors are pushed to new limits.
When situations become uncomfortable, the unwavering camera forces the audience and the actors to endure the awkwardness. The scenes feel authentic, posing a question asked in many ways throughout “Birdman,” “What separates art from reality?”
Keaton can connect to Thomson on a real level, smudging the line between the two; Keaton’s career has plateaued since Batman in the early ’90s, and, much like the play for Thomson, “Birdman” represents a chance for Keaton to return to that peak.
When Thomson grumbles after noticing Robert Downey Jr. (star of the “Iron Man” franchise) on television, it’s hard not to wonder if Keaton would have responded in the exact same way.
Norton, in a masterful performance, plays Mike Shiner, a pretentious but talented theater actor. Shiner is fine spouting off lies about his life to the New York Times yet refuses to drink dyed water, downing real alcohol instead as he insists that theater is the only place where truth exists.
This focus culminates in a thrilling penultimate sequence in which Thomson balances on the fine line between art and reality, dealing with his ego onstage. Keaton sells it every hurried pace of the way, all with the camera tagging close behind.