There is something quite timely about Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu latest picture Birdman in its depiction of Riggan Thomas attempting to find his artistic soul. In some ways, it feels like the bratty, louder younger sibling of Inside Llewyn Davis, which was a sobering, period effort on the same subject.
Birdman seems like it has come out from the 1950s, been given the William Castle treatment and inspired by Darren Aronofsky and his two films that examined the mindset and value of two forms of entertainment. The former being wrestling in the 2008 film, The Wrestler and the latter ballet in the 2010 picture, Black Swan.
The most discerning viewer could accuse the picture of being entrenched in such eye-rolling gonzo filmmaking that it merely serves as a distraction to cover up a lack of prevailing theme or anything meaningful to say. However, this reading would only be half right as Birdman does feel like it has something to say despite the way in which it presents itself.
Aside from the aforementioned thread of searching for the artistic soul. Birdman also paints a bleak, nasty and claustrophobic portrait of the theatre, acting, the pursuit of truth and criticism. Some of the best moments of the film are the raw rehearsal scenes that are thankfully entirely free of artifice, and instead to speak to the themes in a purposeful and subtle way.
Even if the film is not entirely successful, there is no doubt that Michael Keaton delivers a career-defining, tour de force performance that holds the film together. Perhaps the greatest irony of the meta-textual element of the film is that despite Mr Keaton being primarily known for playing the superhero Batman, and the film commenting on this in its way.
Mr Keaton’s performances in those two films were not overt and overshadowing, but instead quiet and fierce, particularly in how Tim Burton shot the Caped Crusader with a particular focus on the eyes, inducing intense purpose. But at the same time, there was an underlying spark of madness, particularly in the first picture that was just waiting to be unleashed.
Michael Keaton combines these two elements into a performance that very well carries the central theme on its sleeve. Whether it is some of the quiet, introspective moments where Thomas is front of a mirror or the raw and surreal scenes. Keaton balances these varying sides with ease and showcases why he has always been an appealing and talented actor. One wishes the film played more to his rhythm of slowing descending into utter depths of dire artistic salvation and life affirmation.
Finally, the score by Mexican Jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez was excellent in giving the film a distinctive identity. In its use throughout the film, the score was like a surreal homage to Taxi Driver. The 1976 picture had a great moment of realism when Scorcese was shooting on a busy street and employed a real group of street musicians in a moment where real music harmonised well with its purpose in the film. There are similar moments here.
It represents one of the outstanding aspects of Birdman, which overall is weaker in its portrayal of a man trying to find his artistic soul. Especially compared to the previously mentioned films, which were more interesting, engaging and dramatically fulfilling.