Skip to main content

Originally published October 23, 2014 at 12:12 AM | Page modified October 23, 2014 at 10:08 AM

  • Comments
  • Print

‘Birdman’ soars to lofty heights

A review of “Birdman,” a wholly original movie by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, starring Michael Keaton as a former movie star trying to reboot his career on Broadway. Rating: Four stars out of four.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review ★★★★  

‘Birdman,’ with Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, from a screenplay by Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo. 119 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence. Several theaters.


Watching Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s multilayered “Birdman” is like unfolding a piece of intricate origami; it keeps opening in unexpected directions. It’s a movie that can be appreciated on many levels simultaneously: as a backstage-at-the-theater comedy; as a literate and literary character study; as a remarkable achievement in cinematography (it’s filmed as to appear to be one unbroken two-hour shot); as a comment on the nature of contemporary entertainment; as a showcase for one of the year’s finest ensemble casts; and as a surreal tale of a man seeking his soul, with a final image so understated yet beautiful you may find yourself sitting still for a minute longer, happily taking it in.

The story for “Birdman,” crafted by Iñárritu and three other writers, is on its surface a simple one: Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a former movie star best known for playing an avian superhero, tries to reboot his career by directing and starring in a Broadway play but finds many bumps on the road to opening night. Along for the ride: his best friend/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis); nervous leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts); loose-cannon movie star Mike (Edward Norton) brought in late in production; Riggan’s girlfriend/castmate Laura (Andrea Riseborough); his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan); and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), newly emerged from rehab and casting a sardonic eye on the production. Nearly every moment takes place in (or just outside) a historic Broadway theater, with the ever-present “ghost light” glowing like a beacon.

All this sounds like a setup for a comedic backstage farce, but “Birdman” is much more. It’s darkly funny (particularly a classic onstage meltdown by Mike), to be sure, but there’s something larger than life here. The labyrinthine hallways of the St. James Theater seem to be closing in on Riggan (they get smaller and tighter as the movie progresses), and he’s haunted by the voice — and sometimes the image — of his mocking alter ego, Birdman. A throbbing drum score (punctuated occasionally by achingly lovely classical music) is the soundtrack playing in Riggan’s mind; and the ever-swooping, whirling camera seems to be performing a chaotic dance, mirroring his mental state. Time collapses — though the shots appear seamless, several days or perhaps more than a week go by — as life and art commingle.

I can’t wait to watch “Birdman” again, to catch a few more details of Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography, and revisit the nuances of the performances, and note more of the throwaway details (a random stranger on the street, for example, shouts out a few lines from “Macbeth” — the play whose title daren’t be spoken in a theater, for fear of bad luck). It’s not perfect — a few minor characters don’t entirely ring true — but it’s always mesmerizing and utterly unique. And it’s an uncanny moment of reinvention for Keaton (can it really be a quarter century since “Batman”?), whose vulnerable, furied Riggan transforms before us. It’s a performance that soars — like “Birdman.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or