To do Birdman justice, this review would have to be one long paragraph. It would appear to be effortlessly composed via stream of consciousness, but would actually have been carefully constructed. When you got to the end of it, you'd feel depressed and uplifted—literally uplifted—and you'd feel like what you read was bonkers, but also, possibly, rather profound.

Michael Keaton in 'Birdman'
Image: Alison Rosa / Fox Searchlight

Michael Keaton in 'Birdman'

Alas, my skills don't come near those of Alejandro González Iñárritu, who directed Birdman (alternate title: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in what appears to be almost one long, unbroken tracking shot. It is a work of magical realism, or perhaps moderate insanity. And it will take your breath away.

Birdman is the story of Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who got famous decades earlier playing a superhero with a black costume and wings . . . no, not that one. Though of course the parallels present themselves, since the actor playing Riggan is Michael Keaton, still best known as Tim Burton's Batman, though his career hasn't gone as south as Riggan's. In the intervening years, Riggan has broken up with his still-supportive wife (Amy Ryan) and failed to properly raise his daughter (Emma Stone), fresh off a stay in rehab and working as his assistant.

To revive his career, Riggan managed—with the help of his best friend/producer (Zach Galifiniakis, playing the straight man for once)—to adapt, direct, and star in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's famous short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It's a fool's errand, spawning comparisons to Don Quixote, including the subtitle: Carver is adaptable, but famously terse; the play keeps falling below Riggan's standards, right up to the day before previews begin; and there are windmills aplenty for the tilting. Ignorance was bliss, till it was shattered.

Emma Stone in 'Birdman'
Image: Alison Rosa / Fox Searchlight

Emma Stone in 'Birdman'

But the most foolhardy errand of all isn't to do Carver justice, not really; it's to take one last, desperate stab at securing his place in the world of Serious Actors, instead of just That Guy Who Used to Be Birdman.

Riggan hates his other male lead in the play, but Lady Luck smiles and drops a stage light on his head the day before previews begin. Thus concussed, they have to look for another actor. Unfortunately, nearly everyone is tied up with shooting one superhero movie or another. (Hugh Jackman, for instance, is shooting the “prequel to the prequel to X-Men.”)

Article continues below

One of the actresses, Lesley (Naomi Watts), just so happens to be dating Broadway darling Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who just got fired/quit another production and is available. They bring him in, and he's brilliant. But he also threatens to drive Riggan mad.

Or is he already mad?

He hears his dark doppelganger of Birdman talking to him, occasionally soars above the ground, can levitate objects—or at least that's how it seems from what we see onscreen. He sees a guy out on the New York City sidewalk, yelling through the "life's but a poor player, a walking shadow" monologue from Hamlet on the street, but then the guy reiterates something another person said to him, and whether or not he exists is uncertain. But as previews go worse and worse, Riggan begins to despair of ever managing to be a serious actor. “You're not important. Get used to it,” his daughter yells. “I'm a f---ing Trivial Pursuit question,” he spits out later.

Everyone in Birdman is trying not to disappear, and fearing that they will. The swaggering Mike Shiner is domineering onstage—sexually and otherwise—but can't replicate that in real life. Lesley is afraid that this, the apex of her career, the fulfillment of all her lifelong aspirations, will be a flop before it even begins.

The film marries some of Iñárritu's favorite devices from previous films. The interlocking narratives of Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros showed how none of us exist in a background, how everything matters; Biutiful gave us a protagonist who could (literally) see his own end approaching and was desperately trying to hang on to what he knew of life. In Birdman, we get both elements, expertly acted by veterans whom, I suspect, feel rather close to the source material.

Michael Keaton in 'Birdman'
Image: Alison Rosa / Fox Searchlight

Michael Keaton in 'Birdman'

All of this is underscored by the seemingly unbroken tracking shot, which accomplishes at least two important tasks. First, because of its long takes (it is actually stitched together, but there are no cutaways), the actors were forced to work much like they would in the theater, where everything is performed live. They pull this insane task off so well that you start holding your breath, much like you might watching a virtuoso perform in the theater, where the risk of falling off the ledge is always present. In a play about the world behind the stage, this makes it feel as if they've earned it.

And second, it builds almost unbearable tension from the first rehearsal we see through previews to the opening. Every second, we're expecting something to go wrong—and often it does. That neatly mimics the increasingly frantic experience onscreen. We're tired, by the time the break happens. We've been right there with them for the last hour. All this is underscored by a wonderfully stripped-down score that consists almost entirely of one guy improvising on a drum kit.

Article continues below

Importantly, there is a deeply moral question at the center of Birdman: does life consist in work, or love? Is it what we do, loving and being loved, that keeps us from “disappearing”? Is there a difference? The film's epigraph is a poem from Raymond Carver himself, called “Late Fragment”:

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.

Riggan's fatal flaw—all superheroes must have one—is that he wants everyone to love him, the whole world. He wants to be loved like he was when he was Birdman, not now, by a handful of people. The love of a few will never be enough.

This poem, by the way, is inscribed on Carver's tombstone.

Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis in 'Birdman'
Image: Alison Rosa / Fox Searchlight

Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis in 'Birdman'

Carver is a great backbone for this film, if only because in its early scenes I kept thinking that there was something of Robert Altman about the film—Altman's films being ones in which many characters multiply bump into one another, where the camera drifts around aimlessly at times for no reason, in which people talk over one another and comedy and tragedy is merged beautifully. For his celebrated 1993 film Short Cuts, Altman and his co-writer combined nine short stories and a poem by Carver into one film in which small stories interlock (though not “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”)

Birdman does some of the same stuff as that, but with a different flavor: more driven, less space to breathe, more of a clear drive. It's off-beat enough to keep the audience guessing—we forget it's magical realism, and then Riggan starts flinging things around the room with his mind—and innovative in its filmmaking, but the story is so deeply true of nearly all of us that it feels firmly anchored in reality.

After all: who doesn't fear they're going to reach the end of life and wonder if they got what they wanted? Who doesn't want to feel beloved?

Caveat Spectator

The film is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence, and that is indeed what you should expect. This is a film for mature audiences. Profanities and innuendo of all the types. Several male characters walk around in their briefs on several occasions (one, on stage, involves an erection, which is probably the apex of the potentially offensive content); one gets naked, and we see his backside. There are two brief moments of gun violence. Characters (including two women) kiss. An unmarried character thinks she might be pregnant. A joint makes an appearance; a few characters drink to excess.

Article continues below

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and writes the "Watch This Way" blog. She also is assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City and tweets @alissamarie.

Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(15 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (For language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.)
Directed By
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Run Time
1 hour 59 minutes
Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Theatre Release
November 14, 2014 by Fox Searchlight
Browse All Movie Reviews By: