A play within a play has long been one of my favorite devices in storytelling. If isn’t used often, and some directors have a hard time keeping things together, but when it’s done well it can add such a great layer to each character. Such is the case with Alejandro González Iñárittu’s new film Birdman. Michael Keaton delivers the performance of his career as a washed up actor trying to regain credibility by writing, directing, and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Joining Keaton in the film we get a brilliant Ed Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, Zack Galifinakis, and Naomi Watts in her best role since I Heart Huckabees. Stone plays Keaton’s daughter, just out of rehab and trying to make the best of things. Norton, Watts, and Riseborough all portray actors in the play and somewhat caricatures of themselves as vain, petty, and arrogant but so fragile they could crack at any moment. Norton especially dazzles as the “stage” actor that thinks he’s better than everyone else-especially Keaton’s “movie” actor.
Iñárittu keeps his camera moving at all times, so much so that the whole film feels like one long tracking shot. It’s masterfully done, with Emmanuel Lubezki shooting fearlessly. The drum-heavy jazz soundtrack adds to the chaotic energy as we witness the toll this play is taking on Keaton.
His mind full of regret, jealousy, and booze, Keaton’s Riggan Thompson seems like he could go off at any second. This play has bankrupted him, his daughter hates him, and he’s reminded of his faded glory of his superhero Birdman years at every turn. He even has Birdman as the voice in his head, feeding him with delusions and false praise. His descent into madness is astounding to watch, and Keaton never misses a beat.
The trailers really don’t do this film justice at all. It’s a dark comedy for sure, but the depth of character isn’t something easily conveyed in 2 minutes. Iñárittu has thrown out his old formula familiar from films like Amores Perros and 21 Grams, focusing all his energy on one man. In doing so, he’s made his best film to date.