Review: Michael Keaton soars as a troubled actor in the electrifying ‘Birdman’

Starting with “Amores Perros,” it has been obvious that Alejandro González Iñárritu is fascinated by the darkest corners of the human heart. It is easy to imagine that is the sum total of his gift as an artist is inflicting misery on these people he creates, but that's a misreading of his work. Yes, “21 Grams” and “Babel” and “Biutiful” are movies in which misery is as omnipresent as oxygen, but there is also proof that he believes in redemption and mercy and moments of grace, or at least the struggle towards those things. He has never found the balance between the light and the dark with quite the same skill as he does in his new film “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance),” and the result is one of the most thrilling pieces of film craft that I've seen so far this year.

Iñárritu worked with co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo to polish one of the year's densest, busiest screenplays. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) begins the movie alone in his dressing room at the St. James Theater on Broadway. He is clad only in his tighty-whiteys, and he levitates a few feet above the ground. In his head, the voice of Birdman speaks, lambasting Riggan for the choices he's made, the choices he's about to make. It is a bold image, and sedate in a way that no other moment in the film is sedate. “Birdman” is not a quiet film, and everything about the work that Iñárritu does here is practically shouting in your face.

It is a manic movie, frantic at times, but it's a perfect way to establish just how turbulent the inner world of Riggan Thomson really is. The film is presented as one long unbroken take, with two very carefully placed exceptions, and taken as a technical accomplishment, it's dazzling. The reason I think it's truly great work and not just clever work is because it's all in service of this one man's emotional collapse and possible rebirth, and it works as character first, theme second, and then technical trick last.

Riggan's at the theater because he's the writer, director, and star of an onstage adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver, and it's a big moment for him. After all, he's the guy who walked away from the wildly successful “Birdman” movies at the height of his success, and he's been paying for it ever since. And while the first impulse that anyone's going to have when they see Keaton playing this part is going to be to read this as autobiography, that would reduce the real accomplishments of the script. Before you ever read anything I wrote as a critic, my work had been produced several times, and my most successful work was on stage. I love live theater, and there is an electricity to a performance that is almost impossible to describe. Once you start, you're in it, and there's no escape. Whatever happens on that stage, that's the experience. No second takes. And every time, it's different, subject to a million tiny currents that run between the actors and the audience.

That's the urgency that “Birdman” captures perfectly. Forget about the former superhero stuff. While an appearance at the New York Comic Con last weekend to promote the movie might send the message that the superhero stuff plays a major part in the film, it's pure misdirection. Ultimately, “Birdman” is about what it is that drives people to bleed for their art. The people who make the films that matter the most, the artists who work not for fame but for the satisfaction of connecting with other people… they understand that feeling, and “Birdman” both celebrates and deconstructs that drive with surgical accuracy.

Take Edward Norton's character, for example. When one of the actors in the play is hurt during a rehearsal (Tony-nominated actor Jeremy Shamos is hilarious as the “bad actor” who gets clocked by a falling light), Riggan is secretly thrilled. He learns from Lesley (Naomi Watts) that her boyfriend might be available, and since her boyfriend is Mike Shiner, as big a star on Broadway as Riggan used to be on film, Riggan is totally thrilled. It's the kind of casting that could turn his play into an automatic, immediate hit. Norton has taken his fair share of heat in the press over the years for being “difficult” or for having problems as a collaborator, but I think much of that is baseless. Norton is a guy who is always pushing once he commits to a piece of work, and he seems to push his collaborators towards truth, towards the things that excite him. Mike Shiner is the exaggerated version of that, a guy who is genuinely talented but who also seems to take special pleasure in provoking others around him. There's a line he crosses in one scene that is truly ugly, and it feels like Norton relishes playing a character this gleefully chaotic.

Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, and Andrea Riseborough all do really strong work here, especially when you consider the insane technical demands they were under as they pulled off these insane takes. It's Keaton's movie, though. I think he's as good here as he's ever been, and there are so many things he's playing in any given moment that it feels like a performance that is going to yield new secrets every time you return to it. He manages the tightrope act with aplomb, and he never makes it look like he's waiting on cues or hitting a mark or playing to a camera.

There comes a point for most people where they take stock of who they are and what they've done and what they still have to look forward to, and those can be some truly dark hours for most of us. “Birdman” is about what an act of faith it is to keep moving forward when we are being battered by life. It is ultimately a defiant cry in the face of uncertainty and fear, and while Riggan may not ever put on his Birdman suit again, there is no doubt by the end of the film that what we're watching is one man's truly superheroic struggle to be at peace with himself, and that's as universal an idea as you'll see in any movie this year.

“Birdman” opens in limited release this Friday.